London: Britain’s grand welcome for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman began on Wednesday with a lunch with Queen Elizabeth, as the two countries seek to widen longstanding defence ties into a far-reaching partnership.
Both sense an opportunity to broaden their existing relationship: Britain is looking for trading partners as it exits the European Union, and Saudi Arabia needs to convince sceptical investors about its domestic reforms.
Prince Mohammad was due to meet Prime Minister Theresa May. Foreign Minister Boris Johnson led the welcoming party for Prince Mohammad on his arrival late on Tuesday. Wednesday’s first official engagement was a trip to Buckingham Palace for talks and a meal with the British monarch — a rare honour usually reserved for heads of state.
After lunch, the Saudi delegation was due to meet May and her cabinet inside May’s Downing Street offices to launch a UK-Saudi “Strategic Partnership Council” — an initiative to encourage Saudi Arabia’s economic reforms and foster cooperation on issues such as education and culture, as well as defence and security.
“It will usher in a new era of bilateral relations, focused on a partnership that delivers wide-ranging benefits for both of us,” May’s spokesman told reporters.
May defended Britain’s links to defence and security ally Saudi Arabia in parliament on Wednesday, saying cooperation had helped save the lives of hundreds of people. “The link that we have with Saudi Arabia is historic, it is an important one, and it has saved the lives of potentially hundreds of people in this country,” May said in response to a question from opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Britain is vying to land the stock market listing of state oil firm Saudi Aramco, but no decision is expected this week.
Later this month Prince Mohammad visits the United States, which also wants the lucrative listing, although sources said both countries may miss out.
British officials were privately delighted at the decision by Prince Mohammad, 32, to choose Britain as the major western destination on his first foreign trip since becoming heir to the Saudi throne last year.
The British government is keen to transform its historic defence relationship into two-way trade and investment, eyeing both an expanded market in Saudi Arabia for service sector exports, and attracting Saudi cash to finance domestic projects.
Business deals are possible with British defence group BAE Systems and European weapons maker MBDA, and initial agreements could be concluded on gas exploration, petrochemicals and other industries, according to British and Saudi sources.
“This modernisation will not be easy, nor will it be something we can do alone,” Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Britain, Mohammad Bin Nawaf, wrote in the Financial Times.
“We will need to tap the expertise of others. So, as we transition away from our historic reliance on oil, enormous commercial avenues will open up for overseas companies to work with, and invest in, Saudi Arabia.”
The three-day visit will include two audiences with the British Royal family, a briefing with national security officials, and a prestigious visit to the prime minister’s country residence.
May intends to use the private dinner at Chequers on Thursday, a 16th-century manor house 60km northwest of London, to bring up concerns over the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, her spokesman said.
Speaking to reporters in London on Monday, Saudi foreign minister Adel Al Jubeir said his country had failed to effectively communicate the reasons behind its involvement in Yemen, but that they had not chosen to start the war.