Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is selling his vision for social change back home while reassuring investors that the kingdom remains open for business after a corruption crackdown.
A three-day trip to the U.K. that began Wednesday 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 U.S. 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 is hosting the Saudi prince at her country house, the visit is a chance to burnish commercial ties. Expanding economic links with countries outside the European Union is a critical goal as Britain prepares to leave the bloc next year. Saudi Arabia is already the U.K.’s biggest trading partner in the Middle East, with British companies investing more in Saudi Arabia than in any country other than the U.S.
Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, is pushing to end its dependence on oil revenue. That plan will largely depend on Saudi Arabia—a country with a complex bureaucracy and an opaque legal system—becoming more attractive to foreign investors.
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 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 anticorruption campaign that led to the arrest of prominent businessmen—and even members of the royal family.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has huge ambitions for change in Saudi Arabia. But will his reforms also mean greater turbulence in the Middle East? WSJ’s Niki Blasina reports. Photo: Getty
“He will have to reassure potential investors that the way forward will be different,” said Kristian Ulrichsen, an expert on Gulf politics at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston.
But Prince Mohammed and Mrs. May will also have to address difficult issues like the war in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition has intervened to fight Houthi rebels aligned with Saudi Arabia’s chief regional rival, Iran.
Both leaders are under pressure to address the humanitarian consequences of that conflict. The U.K. supplies weapons to Saudi Arabia.
Protests against the war and the arms trade underpinning it are planned in London later Wednesday.
In a statement late Wednesday after talks with Prince Mohammed, a spokesman for Mrs. May said that she expressed the U.K. government’s “deep concerns” over the humanitarian situation in Yemen.
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.
“The Prime Minister and Crown Prince agreed on the importance of full and unfettered humanitarian and commercial access, including through the ports, and that a political solution was ultimately the only way to end the conflict and humanitarian suffering in Yemen,” Mrs. May’s spokesman said.
In a sign of the importance that London places on the visit, the crown prince’s first engagement was an audience with Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace in London. He also dined with Princes Charles and William later Wednesday, after talks with Mrs. 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,” says Robert Lacey, a historian who has written books about the Saudi and British royal families. “For all the reforms, [Saudi Arabia] remains an autocracy.”
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