The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, on Thursday met the British Prime Minister Theresa May, religious and business leaders, and visited historical and cultural sites on a busy second day of his three-day visit.
As Prince Mohammed travelled to Mrs May’s Chequers retreat for further talks on deepening ties, Britain and Saudi Arabia agreed to work together to implement a £65 billion joint investment plan.
The crown prince presented Saudi Arabia’s economic prospects and underlined his commitment to tackling extremism. A series of events and discussions during the trip have promoted Saudi Arabia as a tolerant, modernising economic and diplomatic player. Officials on both sides hope it acts as a catalyst for a wider trade and investment relationship with Britain, building on long-term defence and security ties.
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion, which counts on the loyalty of millions of Christians globally, received the crown prince at Lambeth Palace in central London. The dialogue with the religious leaders lasted more than an hour and included assurances from the crown prince.
“The crown prince made a strong commitment to promote the flourishing of those of different faith traditions, and to interfaith dialogue within the Kingdom and beyond,” a statement from Lambeth Palace said. “The Archbishop shared his concern about limits placed on Christian worship in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and highlighted the importance for leaders of all faiths to support freedom of religion or belief, drawing on the experience of the UK.”
Both Prince Mohammed and the archbishop viewed a selection of early texts from the Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths, including fragments of a Quran manuscript found in a Birmingham University library in 2015, which are thought to be among the world’s oldest.
In addition to the religious concern, there has also been a broader focus on extremism during the trip. Emman El Badawy, head of research at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, told The National that counter-extremism was one theme of the visit that should solidify British ties with Prince Mohammed.
“The UK should try to make use of this opportunity, he is a reformer within the Saudi elite. What that means from a counter-extremism point of view, is that he is willing to concede errors have been made in the past,” she said.
Prince Mohammed also received the heads of Britain’s largest banks and select business leaders at the residence of the Saudi Arabian ambassador. Those at the meeting reportedly included HSBC and Standard Chartered chiefs.
The late-night announcement of a £65bn (Dh330bn) investment target was described by the Downing Street spokesman on Thursday as a framework for deals across a range of sectors and an opportunity for British support to flow to the Vision 2030 reform programme championed by Prince Mohammed.
“This is agreement in relation to investment opportunities over the coming years,” the spokesman said. “Essentially, as and when the agreements are reached they will be announced in due course over the coming years. Precise details will follow. Yesterday’s agreement is an ambition.
“It was obviously based on a meeting which the prime minister and the crown prince and other ministers had yesterday.”
Situated about 65 kilometres west of London in the rolling countryside, the Chequers estate grants an opportunity for the Saudi delegation to gain briefings and build relationships with senior British office holders. Fears that the visit would face the disruptive effects of mass protests have not been borne out. Just a few hundred turned out for anti-war demonstrations on Wednesday, less than the number of police deployed and Saudis who turned up to show their support for the 32-year old son of King Salman.
Preparations for the trip have included advertising campaigns on billboards in the British capital and outreach events such as a cultural conference and a youth event organised by the Misk forum.
A group of MPs met with the crown prince earlier in the day, including Winston Churchill’s grandson, Nicholas Soames. Prince Mohammed had toured the Churchill War Rooms where the wartime leader directed government under German bombardment on Wednesday. Mr Soames afterward said there was a great need to stand “shoulder to shoulder” with Saudi Arabia.
Other Conservatives have sought signs of increased effort to forge a political solution to the conflict in Yemen. Leo Docherty told the Conservative Home forum that he had no doubt Britain and Saudi Arabia shared the same end point.
“The Saudis are clear,” he wrote. “They want a political exit from Yemen, and recognise that no military solution exists. But they are also resolute about not allowing a terrorist militia drawn from five per cent of the population (Houthi are a religious/tribal militia drawn from members of the Zaydi sect of Islam in Yemen’s northern highlands)to dominate the future of that country. We should stand with them.”
The Houthi rebels in Yemen are a religious/tribal militia drawn from members of the Zaydi sect of Islam in the country's northern highlands.
Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, said that the talks on Wednesday evening had reached agreement on convening the quad of foreign ministers, including the US and UAE, before the middle of next month to give fresh impetus to the political track.
There was also an agreement over a long-sought upgrade to the UN-led inspections regime to oversee shipments into Yemeni ports to guard against weapons smuggling.
“Britain supports Saudi Arabia’s right to defend its national security against missile attacks from Yemen, many of which have targeted the Kingdom’s cities, including Riyadh,” Mr Johnson said. “Any solution to the conflict must ensure that Saudi Arabia no longer faces this cross-border security threat. Today we have agreed to strengthen the UN inspection of shipping in order to ensure that all Yemeni ports remain open to the humanitarian and commercial supplies that Yemen’s people so desperately need.”