It’s fair to say that no Saudi leader has ever attracted as much personal attention as the Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS). Hailed as a reformer and moderate, his strategy is to take the economically troubled kingdom to greater things by 2030. Allowing cinemas to open, and women to drive and attend football matches, is given as evidence of change in a conservative kingdom.
MbS makes his 3-day visit as a trusted partner in respect to Britain’s interest, even though all those greeting him are disturbed in different ways by the kingdom’s war in Yemen and human rights record. He was met by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, whisked off to lunch with the Queen, and holds two meetings with Theresa May – today at Downing Street and tomorrow at Chequers.
One doubts his media advisors thrust a copy of The Guardian under his nose upon arrival, but no doubt he is quite aware not everyone in Britain sees him as reformer or someone to be trusted. The talk of reform is nonsense, wrote Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry. She argues “it is about nothing but filthy lucre” and that rolling out the red carpet is shameless.
MbS was also too busy meeting the Queen to watch today’s Sky TV live coverage of Prime Minister’s Questions, where there was the kind of exchange that doesn’t happen in an absolute monarchy. A war of words took place between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn. The government position is that Britain needs to engage to influence, and also protect its business interests. Opponents say Britain needs to take a moral lead and scold MbS.
While MbS may have avoided The Guardian and Sky TV, he wouldn’t have missed the protesters in Whitehall, who are taking the opportunity to show directly how they feel. Corbyn asked if the PM would reflect protesters’ concerns about the suppression of women’s rights on International Women’s Day. Noting it takes place tomorrow, and accusing Corbyn of “mansplaining,” May said she will.
However, it is a dialogue complicated by the facts that MbS is personally behind the Saudi war effort and Britain has supplied much of the arms. Besides, the agenda will be dominated by commercial matters, such as business contracts worth up to $100bn. The big deal will, however, not be announced – namely, the potential listing on the London Stock Exchange of the state oil company Saudi Aramco, which may or may not happen.
This is not a state visit, and we should not forget that MbS is the Crown Prince, not the head of state. He is visiting the UK, America and elsewhere to build a global profile, and there is a lot at stake for him personally. He may not be everyone’s picture of a reformer, but if he fails more conservative forces are likely to prevail in the kingdom. If he cannot succeed in his mission to secure Saudi’s border and its economic future, he may just find the line of succession changes. After all, that’s how he got the job.