UK red carpet for Saudi Crown Prince and the supposed ‘great rehabilitation’

Ministers have gone back and forth between the UK and Saudi in the past several years, London wants more trade and Riyadh a vote to stage Expo 2030
The Saudi Crown Prince made a state visit to the UK in 2018. Photo: Loco Steve from Bromley, UK. CC BY-SA 2.0

In late autumn, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman will visit the UK. Ahead of the visit, The Guardian, along with other media outlets, is posing its own question: Is Saudi Arabia’s “great rehabilitation” underway, it wondered, inviting the thinking public to spend the money to book tickets and listen to Guardian journalists discuss the issue.

The point of the question is that  it would be first official visit to the UK by MBS, as the heir to the Saudi throne is know, since he was accused of masterminding the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

But the question would have a lot more relevance if the following had not already happened:

Several UK ministers have visited Saudi Arabia in the years since the Khashoggi case. Leading Saudi ministers have returned the favour,  including foreign minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud. Trade and commerce continue apace, with the UK keen to raise the volume and Saudi hoping the UK votes for Riyadh (rather than Rome) in a November ballot to stage Expo 2030.

The UK is negotiating a free trade deal with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), of which Saudi Arabia is a leading member, and is anxious not to fall down the pecking order as

The Saudi foreign minister’s visit to the UK in March came as part of a round table hosted by the Royal Institute of International Affairs. It focussed, according to the Saudi paper Arab News, “on the historical and strategic ties between Saudi Arabia and the UK. It also emphasized the rapid developments occurring in the Kingdom under Vision 2030.”

That was just days before UK defence secretary Ben Wallace went off to  Saudi Arabia, meeting his opposite number Prince Khalid bin Salman and other ministers. In December 2022, the UK and Saudi Arabia signed their Defence Cooperation Plan.

In May, UK business and trade secretary Kemi Badenoch took in Saudi Arabia along with Qatar and the UAE on a five-day tour. It was to discuss a new trade deal with the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), of which Saudi is a leading member. The deal is supposed to  increase trade by at least 16 per cent between the UK and the GCC.
And UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who had already met MBS at the G20 last year, had a cordial phone call in mid-August with the Crown Prince, who happens to also have the title of prime minister.
Does the long list of bilateral engagements suggest Saudi Arabia is in need of a “great rehabilitation”?

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