New British ambassador to Saudi Arabia launches tenure

Adel Al Jubeir hosts Neil Crompton at start of his stint in Riyadh

ع / سياسي / وزير الدولة للشؤون الخارجية يلتقي سفير
UK Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Neil Crompton on Monday called on Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel Al-Jubeir. SPA

 بريطانيا المعين لدى المملكة 1441-06-30 هـ(واس)
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Britain's new ambassador to Saudi Arabia formally began work on Tuesday after an inaugural meeting with Adel Al Jubeir, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs.

Neil Crompton moves into the post at a time when both capitals are positive about strengthening the relationship.

The new Saudi ambassador in London, Prince Khalid bin Bandar, has set goals for engagement with Britain across all tiers of government, business and society.

Mr Crompton set off for Riyadh last week having "kissed hands" with Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace during the ceremonial inauguration of his mission.

The swift scheduling of his appointment with Mr Al Jubeir was hailed by Mr Crompton in a tweet on Tuesday.

In his last job as the head of the Mena directorate, Mr Crompton played a central role in British efforts to engage with Vision 2030 and the reform agenda of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

The career diplomat has held key posts in setting Middle East policy, including a stint as head of the Iraq policy unit between 2003 and 2005, followed by the role of Iran co-ordinator until 2007.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has set great emphasis on ambassadors speaking the language of the country, so Mr Compton spent the run-up to his posting in immersive Arabic language training.

As head of the Mena directorate, Mr Crompton was confronted by the challenges posed by Iran.

He was on the scene for the low points of recent years as Iran embarked on a policy of imprisoning dual nationals, including the long ordeal of Nazanin Zardari-Ratcliffe, the London resident locked up in Evin prison.

British efforts with the administration of Donald Trump over the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal and Washington's maximum pressure were largely fruitless.

Mr Crompton was a dispirited participant at the US organised Middle East meeting in Warsaw last year.

The future agenda in Riyadh will involve deepening the government-to-government capacity building projects that have underpinned bilateral ties since the launch of Vision 2030.

The departing ambassador Simon Collis, a veteran regional expert, sought to extend co-operation beyond the traditional pillars into new areas of culture, health and services.

"Simon moved to embrace the major changes in policy and that is something that will continue," Neil Quilliam, the Chatham House associate fellow and head of Castlereagh Associates, told The National.

"Saudi Arabia is an important partner in the region."

A key challenge for both countries is to synchronise two of the major events in the diplomatic calendar this year.

Saudi Arabia is president of the G20 and due to host the annual summit in November, while Britain is set to stage the Cop 26 meeting on climate change in Glasgow just days earlier.

"There will be close co-ordination between the G20 meeting and Cop26," Mr Quilliam said.

"There is appetite on the part of the Saudi Arabian leadership to reposition the kingdom in that sphere and hopes in the UK to bring Saudi Arabia into the Cop tent."

British involvement in Saudi Arabia's ambitious plans to remodel its economy must increase to meet the changes in sectors such as health, education and entertainment.

A report from Castlereagh Associates this week highlighted the needs of matching education to skills needed in the job market, an area where British providers could find an opening.

"Most new initiatives focus on giving universities the freedom, and students the incentive, to focus on subjects that serve Vision 2030 objectives, rather than seek to tackle the poor performance of primary and secondary education," it said.

"The authorities face a range of challenges to reform at these levels, and some see private provision as the only way forward."

Traditional areas of co-operation are also evolving quickly.

After the Iranian cruise missile attacks on shipping in the Strait of Hormuz and Saudi Arabia's key oil facilities last year, British officials have sought deeper co-operation on security threats from Tehran against its neighbours.

The fresh start of a new majority Conservative government in London under Mr Johnson has also infused an air of momentum in diplomatic exchanges.

A more outward-looking Britain seeking to forge fresh ties beyond the EU, including a possible free trade pact with the GCC, is welcome to Saudi Arabian policy makers.

"The UK is a partner that senior Saudis have full confidence in," Mr Quilliam said.