Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz’s official state visit to the United Kingdom ushered in a new “strategic partnership” between Riyadh and London.
Crown Prince Mohammed, accompanied by a high-level delegation, began his visit with lunch with Queen Elizabeth II. The agenda included meetings with British Prime Minister Theresa May, Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, select members of parliament and the leaders of major UK banks.
The crown prince and May inaugurated the UK-Saudi Strategic Partnership Council, which is to foster Saudi economic reform efforts, strengthen cooperation on educational and cultural issues and reinforce defence and security collaboration.
“The meeting agreed a landmark ambition for around [$90.3 billion] of mutual trade and investment opportunities over the coming years, including direct investment in the UK and new Saudi public procurement with UK companies,” the prime minister’s office said in a statement.
“This is a significant boost for UK prosperity and a clear demonstration of the strong international confidence in our economy as we prepare to leave the European Union.”
Crown Prince Mohammed was on his first official foreign tour, which started in Egypt before the trip to the United Kingdom. He is to travel to the United States later this month.
The aim of the tour is to solidify long-standing relations with allies and generate international investment to buttress the Saudis’ Vision 2030 reform programme.
Crown Prince Mohammed has rebranded Saudi Arabia as a moderate and tolerant country open to the world and ready to engage in global business.
“This stereotypical image of the kingdom as a religiously extremist country and an exporter of inefficiently spent oil barrels was promoted intently by the West and needs change from within rather than from overseas,” wrote Ahmad al-Jmia in the Saudi newspaper Al Riyadh.
“It requires political leaders who transform social reality and base international relations on the basis of interests.”
“We believe that Saudi Arabia needs to be part of the global economy,” Crown Prince Mohammed said in an interview with the Daily Telegraph. “People need to be able to move freely and we need to apply the same standards as the rest of the world.”
The crown prince acknowledged that Saudi Arabia needed to improve its human rights record; however he asked that critics be patient.
“We are getting better and we have come a long way in a short time,” he said.
The Saudi crown prince was also met with protesters demanding an end to the war in Yemen.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, in an interview with BBC Radio 4’s “Today” programme, said the protesters’ positions were based on misunderstandings.
“They criticise us for a war in Yemen that we did not want, that was imposed on us,” Jubeir said, adding that war was supported by international law.
Jubeir, speaking at a news conference with British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, said the Iran-allied Houthi militias weren’t serious about dialogue. He said there had been more than 70 meetings but the Houthis had been indifferent to them.
British opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, known for pro-Iranian views, tried to generate controversy about the crown prince’s visit. His positions were not unnoticed by Saudi media.
“We should not stand idly by while [Corbyn] leads a campaign against the kingdom,” Saudi daily Okaz Editor-in-Chief Jameel al-Thiyabi wrote. “He is compromising his country’s stable relations with Saudi Arabia to seek party interests.”
Thiyabi said the Labour Party leader’s experience did not go beyond the backbenches of parliament.
The last day of the crown prince’s UK visit focused on security-related matters. There was a meeting with British Defence Minister Gavin Williamson, which, local reports said, centred on arms sales, including the potential purchase of up to 48 Typhoon fighter jets. Crown Prince Mohammed also serves as Saudi defence minister.
Crown Prince Mohammed’s trip dominated Saudi media. Arabic-language publications carried full translations of his interview with the Daily Telegraph in which he stressed security cooperation between the two countries.
On Twitter, the Saudi populace’s preferred mode of expression, Crown Prince Mohammed’s visit received overwhelming support. Many users posted pictures of the crown prince during his visit, as well as photos of billboards welcoming him to the United Kingdom.
“Crown Prince and leader of the vision Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz is in London to improve economic ties and achieve Vision 2030,” Saudi user Battar tweeted to his 33,200 followers.
Saudi Twitter user Shabban al-Bana posted a photo of the crown prince with the archbishop of Canterbury, writing: “Making history and creating glorious and prosperous future for his country and its people God willing.”
Mohammed Alkhereiji is the Arab Weekly’s Gulf section editor.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.