Home / General / UK senses opportunity in Saudi Arabia’s reforms

UK senses opportunity in Saudi Arabia’s reforms

We have never seen a Saudi royal visit like it. Young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – MBS for short – has swept through in a whirlwind of hype, excitement and controversy.

To his supporters – and they are in their millions among the young and women of Saudi Arabia – he is the answer to their prayers.

MBS promises sweeping change after decades of repression.

He has confined the religious police to barracks.

He says he wants women to be allowed to drive, attend public events and freed to work on an equal footing with men.


Who is Mohammed bin Salman? Waghorn package

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Who is Saudi Crown Prince ‘MBS’?

He wants a moderate form of Islam to return to a country at the heart of the Muslim world and blamed, rightly or wrongly, for much of its extremism until now.

Reforms all too glibly dismissed by some in the British press as insignificant are quite the opposite for the people they benefit. If you have spent your life unable to drive and in fear of persecution by religious bully boys, the changes under way are real and important.

In all this, the British Government sees an opportunity. It has long called for such reforms and welcomes the more moderate tone. And it wants in on the action.

Theresa May greets the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Salman outside 10 Downing Street
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Theresa May greets Mohammad bin Salman outside 10 Downing Street

Where there are cinemas to build, for instance – banned since 1979 – it wants British entertainment companies at the heart of it. And it sees potential openings for Britain’s service industry and entertainment, sporting and education sectors.

The May government is unashamed about booming arms sales to Saudi Arabia but also keen to diversify and benefit as Saudi Arabia seeks to wean itself off its dependence on oil and open up its economy. It is placing Britain in pole position to make the most of those opportunities.

The opposition does not buy it. Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry says the fuss being made by the UK about MBS and his reforms is just so much “nonsense”.

Queen Elizabeth II greets Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia
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The Crown Prince had lunch with the Queen during his visit

Labour says the relationship is entirely about what she calls the “filthy lucre” of the arms trade and branded the lavish reception laid on for the Crown Prince as shameless.

Human rights groups say there must be far more reforms. They cite the guardianship system, for instance, whereby women’s lives are effectively controlled by male relatives, although it has been partially reformed.

There is most criticism over the Kingdom’s role in the war in Yemen, and the ensuing humanitarian disaster there. Saudis have reiterated their defence of that role, insisting it is a conflict forced upon them that they are trying to end.

Activists from Avaaz stage a protest timed to coincide with the visit by Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman outside the Houses of Parliament
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The visit was met with protests over Saudi Arabia’s role in Yemen

If they were not aware of the strength of feeling about the war before this visit, they can be under no illusion now.

But they can leave confident in the assumption that British support remains unwavering. Comments on Yemen by British ministers this week seemed to be reading from the same talking points as their Saudi counterparts.

Ministers say they have expressed concerns about human rights and about Yemen. The Prime Minister, we are told, would raise the issue again at a second meeting in Chequers. It is not clear how hard she has pushed the point.

Perhaps most worryingly, the Saudi government is accused of cracking down on political freedoms at the same time as relaxing social restrictions. If it continues, the May government will be accused of aiding and abetting a government that is repressing its people politically.

There is no talk of political reform and mounting evidence debate and dissent is being stifled. Critics, be they intellectuals, journalists or other ordinary citizens, have been arrested and others forced to flee just as this new climate of “reform” has begun to gather speed.

The government has made vague accusations of a Qatari plot being uncovered but provided no convincing evidence or further explanation of the arrests and failed so far to bring charges.

A woman appears to take a selfie at the show
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Women in Saudi Arabia will soon have the right to drive

Jamal Khashoggi was one of the country’s most respected columnists and an adviser to previous Saudi kings.

He fled into exile last year after watching friends being arrested simply for questioning elements of the reforms. He says the arrests are having a chilling effect on public discourse.

“He’s not arresting opponents of the reform. He’s arresting reformists, people who are calling for reform, people who are demanding a purge in corruption who are demanding an end to radicalism.

“He should get the people behind him out of love and support and not out of fear.”

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