LONDON – Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman began on Wednesday an official trip in the UK to sell his vision for social change back home while reassuring investors that the kingdom remains open for business after a corruption crackdown, according to a report from Dow Jones.
The three-day trip is the young royal’s first visit to a Western country since he ousted a powerful cousin to become heir to the throne in June, a bumpy political transition that led to the arrests of critical clerics, princes and journalists.
Prince Mohammed’s tour, which follows a short trip to Egypt and comes ahead of a visit to the United States this month, aims to bolster Saudi Arabia’s ties with some of its closest allies after months of political uncertainty at home.
For British Prime Minister Theresa May, who will host the Saudi prince at her country house, the visit is a chance to burnish commercial ties with the kingdom. Expanding economic links with countries outside the EU is a critical goal as Britain prepares to exit from the bloc in March next year.
Saudi Arabia is already its biggest trading partner in the Middle East, with companies from the UK investing more in Saudi Arabia than from any other country after the US.
Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, is pushing to end its dependence on oil revenues. That plan will largely depend on Saudi Arabia – a country with a Byzantine bureaucracy and an opaque legal system – becoming more attractive to foreign investors, the Dow Jones report said.
To draw foreign firms to the kingdom, the Saudi government is also trying to project a softer image of the ultraconservative country. Prince Mohammed has been behind historic social reforms, such as the lifting of the ban on women driving and preparing to reopen cinemas for the first time in three decades.
Billboards touting Prince Mohammed as the face of change in the kingdom could be seen in the streets of London. “He is creating a new and vibrant Saudi Arabia,” said one of the billboards, sponsored by a Saudi consulting firm.
A challenge for the crown prince will be to persuade the business community that there is rule of law in the kingdom, after an anti-corruption campaign that led to the arrest of prominent businessmen – and even members of the royal family.
“He will have to reassure potential investors that the way forward will be different,” says Kristian Ulrichsen, an expert on Gulf politics at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.
But the two leaders, Prince Mohammed and May, will also have to address difficult issues like the Saudi war in Yemen.
Both are under pressure to address the humanitarian fallout of the Saudi-led military intervention against Houthi rebels aligned with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s chief regional rival. The UK supplies weapons to Saudi Arabia. Protests against the war and the arms trade underpinning it are planned in London later Wednesday.
Speaking in Parliament, May said she would raise concerns about human rights with Prince Mohammed when they meet later Wednesday.
She added that “we are all concerned about the appalling humanitarian situation in Yemen,” but said that engaging with the Saudi leadership was the best way to get aid into the country.
Over 10,000 people have been killed since the conflict began three years ago, and around eight million people – a fourth of Yemen’s population – are currently on the brink of starvation, according to the United Nations.
In a sign of the importance that London places on the visit, the crown prince’s first engagement is an audience with Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace in London. He is also due to dine with Princes Charles and William later Wednesday, after talks with May and her top team.
Britain has deployed the monarchy as a tool of soft power with the Gulf’s Arab states before. Prince Charles has traveled frequently to Saudi Arabia – on one occasion even participating in the traditional Saudi sword dance. But Prince Mohammed’s visit also underscores the stark differences between the two monarchies.
“The British monarchy has been nimble enough to adapt with the time – and that is the challenge that faces the Saudi monarchy going forward,” said Robert Lacey, a historian who has written books about the Saudi and British royal families. “For all the reforms, [Saudi Arabia] remains an autocracy.”
There is another lesson, Lacey said, Prince Mohammed could learn from the British monarchy: How to slim down the royal family. For decades, the Saudi government has used its oil wealth to keep members of the vast royal family on its payroll. Prince Mohammed is trying to change that.
Britain’s Queen, Mr. Lacey said, “became quite ruthless about cutting off the hangers on.”