LONDON – A controversial visit to London by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is set to be delayed, amid reports that officials in Riyadh are concerned over possible protests and unflattering media coverage of the powerful young royal, Middle East Eye can reveal.
The planned three-day visit of the self-described reformer, who is the chief architect of the ongoing Saudi-led bombardment of Yemen, was due to go ahead this month, but MEE understands the visit has been pushed back to 7 March after officials expressed unease over negative media coverage and the prospects of protests over Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and role in the ongoing Yemen civil war.
A three-part BBC documentary aired last month is understood to have upset Saudi diplomats after it explored an unprecedented crackdown on corruption, which saw MBS detain hundreds of the richest people in the kingdom.
To the dismay of Riyadh the documentary, “House of Saud: A Family At War”, portrayed the Saudi ruling family as facing a “moment of unprecedented instability” as it confronts an ongoing diplomatic conflict with Qatar, rivalry with Iran and a bloody stalemate in Yemen.
First trip abroad
MBS has not left Saudi Arabia since the start of the anti-corruption purge on 4 November, reportedly over fears of internal disorder in his absence, and his visit to London will be part of a extended trip that is expected to see him visit Paris and Washington.
MEE understands the UK leg will see him meet British Prime Minister Theresa May at Downing Street but also spend time outside of the capital with senior members of the British royal family, most likely at Windsor Castle in Berkshire or at Sandringham House in Norfolk.
When late Saudi king Abdullah Al Saud visited the UK in 2007 there were widespread protests and a state dinner was boycotted by opposition politics. The visit by MBS is not a state visit and will be less formal, but protests are expected in London as campaigners seek to draw attention to the Saudi role in the Yemen conflict, which has claimed tens of thousands of lives since 2015 and is the largest man-made disaster in the world, according to the UN.
'[Theresa May] will not do small talk and, very un-Arab-like, will prefer to get straight down to business'
– Diplomatic source
The UK has licensed more than $6.4bn in weapons, including fighter jets, bombs and missiles, to Saudi forces since the start of the Yemen conflict and the two countries signed a major defence agreement in September.
However, despite the warm relations between London and Riyadh there are concerns in Westminster that the 32-year-old crown prince and May “don’t enjoy a warm working relationship” and lack “chemistry” together, said a source with knowledge of the situation.
“She will not do small talk and, very un-Arab-like, will prefer to get straight down to business,” added a second diplomatic source with contacts in the Gulf.
There will also be tensions over the Iran nuclear deal where London takes a different view from its key Gulf ally, and MBS is expected to receive a warmer welcome in Washington, where he is close to Jared Kushner, the US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor.
The 37-year-old Kushner has met with MBS in Saudi Arabia on several occasions and appears to have established a close personal relationship, which stands in stark contrast to the May’s reportedly frosty relationship with the Saudi prince.
'Straight down to business'
Saudi officials were reportedly embarrassed in October when former defence minister Michael Fallon called on MPs to stop criticising Saudi Arabia in the interests of securing future sales of fighter jets.
Unsurprisingly officials at the Saudi embassy in Washington have said the trip to London is set be “one of the most sensitive diplomatic visits” this year, as the UK is likely to endorse the MBS 2030 Vision to transform Saudi Arabia’s oil-dominated economy.
MBS is expected to travel with his close financial advisor, Yasser al-Rumayyan, the head of the Public Investment Fund. High on the agenda during talks with May will be the possible stock flotation of state oil giant Aramco, which could be valued at as much as $2 trillion and the UK government is keen to bring to London.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has been urging Saudi Arabia to accept there is no military solution to the Yemen conflict and pushed the kingdom to partly lift a blockage of Hodeidah, the main port for aid in the rebel-held north.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir sits with Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, 26 January (Reuters)
However, campaign groups say the crown prince is the architect of the Saudi-led bombardment of Yemen, which has created one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. Despite the devastation, the UK government has continued to arm and support the Saudi government.
Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable told MEE: “Theresa May must use this visit to demand Saudi Arabia fully open up the port in Hodeidah on a permanent basis to enable supplies to get to people suffering from mass starvation.
“She must also make sure that commitments previously given to the British government on US standard surveillance over the Saudi Arabian air force are put in place immediately, so as to minimise the risk of civilian casualties.”
Both the Liberal Democrats and the opposition Labour Party are committing to halt the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia.
Policing the protesters
The timing of the crown prince’s visit emerged after police in London reportedly discussed policing arrangements with protest groups, including the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) and the Stop the War Coalition.
“The crown prince is a figurehead for a regime with one of the worst human rights records in the world. He has overseen the devastating bombardment in Yemen, which has killed thousands of people and created a terrible humanitarian catastrophe,” said Andrew Smith, spokesperson for CAAT.
To the dismay of campaigners, MBS is due to be in the UK for International Women’s Day on 8 March.
Last year Saudi Arabia granted women the right to drive, overturning a cornerstone of Saudi conservatism, but critics say the country still has strictly demarcated gender roles that severely limit the role of women in public life.
“The timing of the visit round International Women’s Day adds insult to injury for millions of women. We will be on the streets to protest,” said Lindsey German, of Stop the War Coalition.
Talk of reform
Details of the visit by MBS are emerging a month after two British human rights lawyers asked for Saudi Arabia to be suspended from the UN Human Rights Council over 61 people "arbitrarily detained or disappeared" by the kingdom's authorities.
Ken Macdonald and Rodney Dixon submitted their report to the council in Geneva last month, stating that the arrests of prominent clerics, human rights activists, journalists, poets and academics were "in breach of both Saudi and international law".
Kate Allen, Amnesty International UK’s director, told MEE: “The prime minister mustn’t let Mohammed bin Salman’s trip to Britain come and go without discussing Saudi Arabia’s deteriorating human rights situation.
“Despite the crown prince’s talk of ‘reform’ in the kingdom, there’s been deepening repression – with more arrests of opposition and human rights activists, scores of executions, countless unfair trials and ongoing reports of torture in detention.”
Officials at the Foreign Office refused to be drawn on dates for the visit and instead pointed to the prime minister's comments last year when her official spokesperson said she “looked forward to welcoming the crown prince to the UK in the New Year.”
The Metropolitan Police had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.