Saudi ambassador to UK reveals how lockdown changed diplomacy

Prince Khalid bin Bandar says reforms to governance prepared kingdom for life under pandemic

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 19:  Saudi Ambassdor to the UK Khalid bin Bandar bin Sultan al-Saud walks through the Central Lobbey as he attends the State Opening of Parliament at the Houses of Parliament on December 19, 2019 in London, England. In the second Queen's speech in two months, Queen Elizabeth II will unveil the majority Conservative government's legislative programme to Members of Parliament and Peers in The House of Lords.  (Photo by Adrian Dennis - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
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Prince Khalid bin Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to the UK, has a clear purpose: to increase the contacts and understanding between the people of the two countries.

Less than a year after he arrived in London as the face of his country's reforming agenda in the UK, the coronavirus lockdown redefined how he does his work, but not the overall mission.

Prince Khalid on Wednesday told an online seminar organised by the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce that the trends around the world in response to Covid-19 coalesced with the changes under way in his country.

"My role is to build people-to-people contacts and I miss the physical aspects of meeting people tremendously, but it is incredible how many people you can reach through digital forums," he said.

Prince Khalid said the shift in governing in the kingdom under Saudi Vision 2030 left Saudi Arabia well prepared for the new modes of operating under the threat of the pandemic.

"The developments we have made in the economy and in digitising our government have changed things totally," he told the audience of business leaders and officials.

"The ability we have to deal with the virus is the result of our digitisation process. The direction of travel we were moving in was the one the rest of the world was moving in."

Prince Khalid faced questions on the development of Vision 2030 and said that whole new sectors were being created.

The interest from abroad was apparent. In the few months between the launch of tourism visas and the lockdown, he said 40,000 applications had been processed in London alone, the second-highest figure in the world.

In the next few weeks the embassy will lay out plans for a resumption of scheduled flights between Saudi Arabia and Britain.

Covid-19 has put Riyadh at the centre of global policy planning for the economic recovery through the G20, which the kingdom currently chairs.

Prince Khalid said his discussions with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have made clear his ambitions for a transformative role.

"My conversations with Prince Mohammed were very focused on what we can do to change the world, what we can do to have an impact through the G20," he said.

"The G20 presidency is setting a new agenda for the world that has our regional perspective at the heart of it."

The ambitions behind the efforts for Vision 2030 are to build a new nation fit for the three fifths of the population who are under the age of 30.

Foreign direct investment is crucial to that goal.

"The more FDI we get, the more opportunities we create," Prince Khalid said.

"As much investment from the private sector and from government as there is, there is still a big gap between what we can do and what we want to do. That's why FDI is important."