Multi-billion deals shroud Saudi state visit

29th Mar 2018
Multi-billion deals shroud Saudi state visit

(Photo: Alisdare Hickson/Creative Commons Flickr)

Hamed Chapman

Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman received full red carpet treatment during his controversial state visit to Britain this month that was shrouded in a series of deals between the two countries worth a “lucrative” £45 billion in trade and investment according to Downing Street.

No less than 13 agreements were listed by the Foreign Office, including an extraordinary £100m aid cooperation agreement with Riyadh, which was criticised by Labour as a “national disgrace”, while UK aerospace giant BAE Systems boasted of signing a long-awaited memorandum of intent for the Saudis to buy 48 Typhoon fighter jets.

“The UK and Saudi Arabia are building a new long-term partnership to improve livelihoods, boost economic development and create a vital infrastructure to support some of the world’s poorest people in drought and conflict-stricken countries,” the Department for International Development said of the highly symbolic new accord with the Saudi Fund for Development.

But Kate Osamor, the Shadow International Development Secretary, accused the Government of making a “mockery” of Britain’s reputation as a global leader in delivering humanitarian aid. The aid agreement aligns Britain with the country “primarily responsible for one of the world’s biggest humanitarian crises” in Yemen and “will whitewash Saudi Arabia’s reputation and role in the war,” she said.

A memorandum of understanding was also signed on entertainment and leisure, where Britain would play an important role to open up the Persian Gulf country’s economy and culture, including the launch of 30 multiplex cinemas across the country over the next three years.

“This agreement is a historic moment for change and reform in Saudi Arabia and marks a new chapter in relations between the Kingdom and Britain. Arts, sports and the creative industries give people the freedom to express themselves, provide enjoyment and entertainment, and can be many people’s first introduction to a nation’s culture,” said Britain’s Digital and Culture Secretary, Matt Hancock.

Apart from meeting May, which included a visit to Chequer’s countryside residence, the crown prince had lunch with the Queen and a dinner with Prince Charles and Prince William. Talks were also held with other ministers, including Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, and Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, as well as with Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.

The three-day state visit was plagued with a series of protest over Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and its involvement in the Yemen civil war, where bin Salman has been accused of being the architect. But to combat the extent of the remonstrations, a charm offensive was launched across the British capital, presenting the crown prince on his first international tour as a reformer and promising “a new Saudi Arabia”. At the meeting with the Archbishop, which was described as ‘private’, Welby was said to be “encouraged” to learn about Saudi Arabia’s roadmap for the future, ‘Vision 2030’. “The Crown Prince made a strong commitment to promote the flourishing of those of different faith traditions, and to interfaith dialogue within the Kingdom and beyond,” Lambeth Palace said.

“In a cordial and honest conversation, the Archbishop voiced his distress at the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, and asked that all that is possible be done to alleviate the suffering of civilian populations and to seek an end to the conflict,” it added. Welby was also said to have “shared” challenges and concerns of Anglicans from around the world and emphasised the “crucial role that Saudi Arabia could play in protecting minorities across the world.”

It was not until after bin Salman left that it was revealed that UK officials reportedly warned that Saudi Arabia’s state energy company Saudi Aramco’s listing had been delayed to 2019 at the earliest. The flotation billed as the biggest in history had been expected to take place later this year.

The British Government has been seeking to plug the hole that will be left in Britain’s trade and growth prospects after Brexit and was said to have been involved in the bidding war to persuade the Crown Prince to include the London Stock Exchange in any international listing of Aramco. According to the Financial Times, the delay is due to advisers having trouble achieving the $2 trillion valuation sought due to the secrecy of the huge oil company’s finances and internal operations, as well as challenges arising from its close relationship with the state of Saudi Arabia itself.

Editorial p2

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