The upcoming visit of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to London is receiving great media attention in Britain because of its importance, especially as it comes after a crisis that the two countries experienced after his last visit in 2018.
Bin Salman began a series of visits lately, the last of which was to Paris last Juneç. Recently there is a talk concerning a new visit to Europe, this time to London, which has been more than 5 years since he last visited.
The visit is considered as a significant visit by both sides, since Saudi Arabia is looking for a British vote in favor of hosting Expo 2030, while Britain is looking for Saudi investment to gain more investments in order to compensate for its loss by leaving the European Union.
The news of the invitation of Britain to the Saudi Crown Prince to visit London spread through British media such as the “Times”, “Financial Times”, “The Guardian” and the “Middle East Eye” website. The visit is expected to take place before the end of this year, with expectations that it will include agreements that may be in the interest of both parties.
The British newspaper “The Times” wrote an article on August 17, 2023, in which it indicated that the visit of the Saudi Crown Prince will take place this fall, and that the British government will take advantage of it to conclude important economic agreements.
The newspaper stated that London has invited bin Salman to the visit because it seeks to take advantage of Saudi Arabia’s trillion-pound investment program in order to diversify its economy beside the oil, as well as seeking Saudi support for an early trade deal with the Gulf Cooperation Council, in which the kingdom plays a key role.
On July 14, 2023, the “Financial Times” quoted informed sources’ saying that the visit is expected to take place either in October or in November, as the invitation has been extended, but the exact preparations for it were not agreed upon yet.
According to the newspaper, a British official also confirmed that the UK government had extended an invitation to the Saudi Crown Prince, but said that precision logistics services had not yet been agreed upon.
In response to the question of “what would determine the timing of the visit?”, a British government official said: “It’s up to them because we need them more than they need us.”
British newspapers say that the visit will be “the latest sign that Western countries are welcoming the return of prince Mohammed bin Salman, putting an end to the Khashoggi murder,” despite “concerns about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.”
Who needs the other?
Perhaps a set of reasons may be pushing for the strengthening of relations between Riyadh and London recently, foremost of which is Britain’s attempt to seek to promote investments, especially after its exit from the European Union, as its attention is largely directed towards the Gulf countries.
During his call with the Saudi Crown Prince, the British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak affirmed, on August 17, his country’s desire to deepen relations with Riyadh, stressing his country’s aspiration to deepen long-term relations between them.
Sunak also stressed Britain’s commitment to support Saudi Arabia’s security and regional stability, drawing attention to the fact that “Saudi Arabia has played a constructive and positive role in favour of Ukraine, especially after hosting the Jeddah talks.”
The statement noted that the British Prime Minister and the Saudi Crown Prince agreed to meet at the earliest opportunity.
On August 20, the British Labour Party expressed its support for the upcoming talks between the British Prime Minister and the Saudi Crown Prince during his upcoming visit to London, noting that bin Salman’s invitation to visit the United Kingdom is important, as he believes that it is necessary to have dialogue between all countries.
Over the past two years, the UAE and Qatar have pledged to invest £10 billion in Britain through sovereign funds, while Bahrain recently announced a £1 billion investment there.
Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund led a consortium to buy Newcastle United Football Club in 2021, and opened an office in London last year.
Britain is also seeking a free trade agreement with the Gulf Cooperation Council, as it has held several rounds of negotiations in this framework. If an agreement is reached, this could mean an increase in exchanges by at least 16%, which means a rise in revenues for the British economy by more than £1.6 billion, according to a report published by “The Guardian”.
Trade between the UK and the Gulf states reached more than £30 billion in 2020, according to the British government, which believes that “an expanded trade agreement will allow our relations to improve” as “France Press” stated.
On the other hand, it is believed that Saudi Arabia may have interests to complete this visit, foremost of which is Riyadh’s quest to win Britain’s vote next November, to host Expo 2030, which Italy is competing for.
The year 2030 marks an important turning point for Saudi Arabia in general, as the “Saudi Vision 2030”, which depends on diversifying the economy and sources of income beside of oil revenues, will be achieved.
Need for Saudi Arabia
The political analyst Ahmed al-Shehri believes that British contacts with Saudi Arabia and arranging a visit for the Saudi Crown Prince “come within the framework of saving London itself from the predicament of the West.”
Speaking to “BBC Arabic”, he explained: “Britain, like the Western countries, realized the dilemma in which it fell by following America in its hostility to Russia and China, as well as the entrenchment in Ukraine and pouring oil on fire to continue the war.”
In addition, he believes that Britain “urgently needs Saudi Arabia” to support its economy, noting that this support will come through “cooperation in the field of energy and economic partnerships.”
He adds: “Britain is going through great economic and inflationary difficulties, in light of the suffering experienced by the old continent in energy after the war in Ukraine.”
Regarding the importance of the visit which comes about 5 years after the last visit, especially with voices demanding the refusal to welcome the Saudi Crown Prince because of the Khashoggi case, Al-Shehri said: “There are far-right voices that are still playing the broken cylinder in the so-called human rights and the Khashoggi case to strain Saudi-British relations.”
“This is the practice of the liberal right, which raises fake slogans that no longer have a listener,” he comments.
5 Years of Disconnection
The last visit of the Saudi Crown Prince to London was in March 2018, about six months before the murder of Khashoggi (October 2018), which was accompanied by a protest demonstration in front of the British government headquarters with the participation of about 200 people to protest the visit due to the war led by the Saudi-led Arab coalition to restore legitimacy in Yemen.
At that time, Bin Salman met with the late Queen Elizabeth II, culminating in understandings to build broader trade and investment relations, as the two countries agreed to increase cooperation on aviation security.
London said at the time that it appreciated the role intelligence sharing with Saudi Arabia had played in saving British lives, and agreed to sell billions of pounds worth of weapons and ammunition to Riyadh.
The visit also culminated in the signing of a memorandum of intent on the desire of London and Riyadh to complete discussions between them to reach an agreement for the Kingdom to acquire an additional 48 Typhoon aircraft.
following the tension that occurred several months after bin Salman’s visit, Saudi-British relations improved, despite Britain’s support for the positions of Washington and the West regarding the issue of reducing oil production within the “OPEC+” and criticism of the Saudi role following the decision to reduce production by about two and a half million barrels per day last September.
London is also very concerned about the Saudi-Russian rapprochement despite efforts by Western powers to isolate Moscow internationally against the backdrop of the Russian-Ukrainian war that broke out in February 2021.
Despite these contentious files, Saudi Arabia’s position on them has become far from biased, as it sponsored the Jeddah conference recently in an effort to reach a solution in Ukraine. Also, its combat operations in Yemen stopped almost a year ago, which is a file that caused Western criticism previously, while repeatedly stressing that its oil positions take into account the needs of the market and do not take sides with anyone, which has become convincing to the West, according to its close positions with Riyadh.