Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman took lunch with the British Queen on Wednesday and met with government officials to seal a new strategic partnership between the two kingdoms.
The three-day trip is focused on security and defence ties as well as efforts to build support for the Vision 2030 reform programme. Saudi Arabian officials also explored up to £65bn in fresh investments and a potential stock market listing for the national oil company, Aramco.
The crown prince lunched with Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace ahead of talks with Prime Minister Theresa May that ranged from the reform agenda to the conflict in Yemen.
“The meeting agreed a landmark ambition for around £65bn of mutual trade and investment opportunities over the coming years, including direct investment in the UK,” the PM's spokesperson said. “This is a significant boost for UK prosperity and a clear demonstration of the strong international confidence in our economy as we prepare to leave the European Union.”
The prime minister gave strong support to Vision 2030, calling it “an ambitious blueprint for internal reform that aims to create a thriving economy and a vibrant society.”
Mrs May also welcomed “recent reforms in Saudi Arabia, including on women attending sporting events and the cinema, and being legally able to drive from June” and she and the Crown Prince agreed to ”explore ways the UK can support Saudi Arabia to progress and intensify these reforms, particularly on women’s rights.”
She raised British concerns about the situation in Yemen, and discussed Iran, agreeing with the Crown Prince “on the importance of working together to counter Iran’s destabilising regional activity, and Iraq, including the importance of supporting reconstruction efforts.”
Speaking in parliament before the meeting, Mrs May looked forward to hosting the 32-year old who has been given a red-carpet welcome by the British government. "The link with Saudi Arabia we have is historic, it is an important one and it has saved the lives of potentially hundreds of people in this country," she said.
Boris Johnson, the British foreign secretary, said the government would seek to build a range of new joint initiatives with Saudi Arabia. Mr Johnson said he saw Prince Mohammed as an exciting force for change in the region.
“This visit is of great importance,” he said. “Prince Mohammed is a reformist and has a moderate vision of Islam. It shows that he has a desire to listen to all religions and that he is a man of tolerance and mutual respect.
“We see what Prince Mohammed is doing with his vision, moving Saudi Arabia away from oil, going forward to the information economy, artificial intelligence, and establishing the new city of Neom.”
The launch of the UK-Saudi Strategic Partnership Council on Wednesday was designed to showcase the underlying strength of the relationship. It will see British and Saudi officials work to promote reforms in the public and private sector.
Flag-waving supporters showed up to greet the crown prince at various stops. As a few hundred protesters gathered in Whitehall, the main street near Mrs May's London residence, the government was keen to stress it was raising concerns over the effects of the conflict in Yemen.
"Their involvement in Yemen came at the request of the legitimate government of the Yemen, it is backed by the UN Security Council and as such we support it," said Mrs May. "We are all concerned about the appalling humanitarian situation in Yemen and the effect that it is having on people, particularly women and children."
There is no meeting scheduled with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, which has accused the government of "bowing and scraping" to the Saudi leader and called for an end to arms sales.
Mr Johnson added that Britain understood Saudi Arabia’s position on Yemen, not least threat from Iranian-supplied ballistic missiles fired by Houthi rebel forces at targets, including Riyadh.
"We believe in and understand Saudi Arabia's right to defend its security," Mr Johnson said. "It is never acceptable to use [Iranian-provided] missiles against Saudi Arabia, and we want to see an end to them. London agrees with Riyadh's concern about Iran's role in the Middle East.”
In a demonstration of strong ties between the royal families the crown prince was scheduled to finish off the day at dinner at Clarence House with Prince of Wales, Prince Charles and the Duke of Cambridge, Prince William. The focus of the visit moves on Thursday rural retreat Chequers, where he will meet cabinet ministers and have a private dinner with May. A business conference at Mansion House will feature leading Saudi businesses and ministers.
The Kingdom will host what may be the biggest initial public offering in history when shares are offered in Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil company. London, New York, and Hong Kong in all reported to be in the running to land the offering.
Prince Mohammed will also attend a meeting of the National Security Council to strengthen cooperationi on joint security issues.
Crispin Blunt, a Conservative MP and former chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, told BBC radio that the crown prince should be welcomed as a chance to discuss a wide-range of concerns. “We should roll out the red carpet,” he said. “It means the United Kingdom is using its influence as a key partner of Saudi Arabia to try and address some of those issues.”
On the road into the British capital from Heathrow airport, posters welcomed the crown prince declaring the theme of the visit was: “United Kingdoms.”