State visits with pomp and circumstance are something of a British specialism. The gilded carriages, soldiers in scarlet tunics and bearskin hats and glitter of a state banquet are laid on for heads of state several times a year.
There have been regular state visits by Saudi monarchs since King Faisal was greeted at the steps of the Tate museum in London’s Millbank in 1967. There have also been consequential working visits by princes in line to the throne over the years, a tradition that the current crown prince stepped into on Wednesday.
Just under 20 years ago, Queen Elizabeth hosted Crown Prince Abdullah at the Scottish retreat Balmoral. The memoirs of Sir Sherard Cowper Coles, a former ambassador to Riyadh, relate the Queen encouraged the crown prince into a Land Rover and hopped behind the wheel to drive into the mountains. It proved to be such a fast excursion that the royal translator interjected to urge the British monarch to slow down.
According to Sir Sherard there was a later joke that while King Abdullah had been convinced that women could happily drive, he was so terrified by the manner of Queen Elizabeth’s off-road handling skills that the reform was delayed by two decades.
Women are expected to start officially driving on Saudi roads within months. The initiative is part of Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030, a drive to overhaul and modernise the Saudi economy.
Family legend relates that Prince Mohammed as a young man was an open admirer of Margaret Thatcher’s economic reforms. Mrs Thatcher rose to power in 1979 in a country challenged by the costs of inefficient legacy industries that were hemorrhaging money and hampering the country’s global economic progress.
Jettisoning the conventional rules that governed the Saudi Arabian economy has been the hallmark of Prince Mohammed’s progress since his father King Salman succeeded to the throne.
In fact King Salman was one of the first visitors to Downing St after Mrs Thatcher’s general election triumph in 1979. As Prince Salman, whose roles included governor of Riyadh, the current Saudi monarch was a highly valued interlocutor by British officials.
A memo of the meeting reveals Mrs Thatcher discussed the peace talks in the Middle East and the effects on the oil price of the revolution in Iran.
Prince Mohammed appears to have absorbed something of his father’s approach to drawing strength from a deep relationship with the British state.
"His father may well have advised him to take care of the relationship. The King's generation understand the strategic depth and breadth of the relationship with the UK and that it has been tested over a long time. That is the sort of relationship which in a time of change and challenge for the Al Saud, will count,” John Raine, the senior adviser for Geo-political Due Diligence at the International Institute for Strategic Studies said.
The timing of the trip comes at a period of international affair that rivals the turmoil of 1979. Britain is leaving the EU and has set its sights on trade deals around the world. Officials from both countries view Brexit as an opportunity for deeper ties.
“The Saudis will be aware that the UK is facing its own changes and challenges after Brexit,” added Mr Raine. "Apart from trade and investment implications one concern will be that the UK won't be so absorbed by Brexit they neglect their partners, and the role they play, in the Gulf. It's a natural time for both parties to want to re-affirm the partnership."
King Abdullah made a state visit of his own in 2007 that came two year after the bombing of the London Underground by Islamist extremists. Queen Elizabeth “warmly welcomed” the custodian of the two holy mosques, while King Abdullah paid tribute to the British “sense of tolerance” for all religions and colours.
During a reign that stretched through six decades, the Queen has also hosted King Khalid in 1981 and King Fadh in 1987.