Rishi Sunak hopes Mohammed bin Salman meeting sends a message to Israel

British Prime Minister's tour of Middle East seeks to placate Israel and avoid regional war

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meeting with Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in Riyadh. Photo: No 10 Downing Street
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Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s fast-paced Middle East tour included a key meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the hope that together they can exert pressure on Israel to step back from a full-scale attack on Gaza.

Mr Sunak has joined the train of world leaders descending on the Middle East in an attempt to prevent Israel from initiating an assault on the enclave, pressing for restraint and reconciliation.

The fact he left straight from Israel to Saudi Arabia sent its own message that efforts to establish relations between the countries were not entirely off the table.

It was also a demonstrable image of the peace and prosperity that Israel could secure if it refrains from a Gaza assault.

Mr Sunak joined Prince Mohammed in agreeing the requirement to “avoid any further escalation in the region” in a meeting seen as key to keeping war off the agenda.

“The visit to Saudi Arabia and meeting with Mohammed bin Salman during this time is crucial and necessary, and should be seen as a positive step,” Shayan Talabany, a senior Middle East analyst at the Tony Blair Institute, told The National.

“The UK and western allies should be listening to a variety of opinions and expertise, including most crucially from the Middle East's regional leadership in order to understand the situation in Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Gaza better, and to shape its policies better.”

Since the October 7 Hamas attacks, Mr Sunak had appeared unwavering in his support for Israel to conduct a land operation on Gaza.

But the deaths of thousands of Palestinian civilians, including the reported 500 from the Al Ahli Arab Hospital attack, has considerably increased concerns.

Furthermore, the West’s initial unconditional support for Israel was alienating the Global South alongside the “widespread sentiment that they have been disengaged in the Middle East for decades”, Ms Talabany said.

Tom Fletcher, Britain’s former ambassador to Lebanon, also suggested that Mr Sunak was telling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to fulfil Iran’s wish for a wider war on Israel.

“What he's saying between the lines is ‘don't do what Iran wants, don't escalate militarily, don't pursue this ground invasion,” he told the BBC. “Talk about normalisation as there is a path out of this that that doesn't lead to more civilian loss of life.”

It was also vital for Mr Sunak to set out the “real prizes” of peace and discuss “normalisation of relations between Israel and the Arab world,” he added.

Mr Sunak will also be signalling to a British domestic audience that he is listening to all sides at a time when British society has become increasingly polarised by the conflict.

It could also be speculated that western leaders might have formed a WhatsApp group to synchronise their visits after German Chancellor Olaf Scholz arrived on Tuesday, followed by US President Joe Biden, then Mr Sunak with France’s President Emmanuel Macron expected within days.

The strategy regarding Israel, according to one US official, is to “hug them close” while visibly stating “we feel Israel’s pain”.

Mr Sunak is also signalling to the wider world that after the toxic diplomacy of disgraced former prime minister Boris Johnson, Britain is once again a normal European power aligned to Europe’s mainstream thinking.

He is showing too that he regards the crisis as a priority. But he also has to ensure that Britain is committed to the Middle East “not just during this difficult time, but in the long term when it comes to the resolution of long-standing conflicts and issues in the region”, Ms Talabany said.

The trip is also helpful to Mr Sunak’s profile as a leader on the world stage with pictures of him meeting the leaders of Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority featuring prominently in the media.

A recent poll for The National revealed that the Labour leader Keir Starmer outshines Mr Sunak in international politics.

While 40 per cent thought Mr Starmer would “do the better job of representing the United Kingdom on the world stage”, just 31 per cent said the same of the Prime Minister.

Political commentators also noted that he was away from Britain at a time when the Conservative Party suffered two humiliating by-election defeats, suggesting his appearances on the world stage may be short lived.

Rishi Sunak visits Israel - in pictures

Updated: October 20, 2023, 4:41 PM