The British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, has attempted to quell widespread anger over the visit to the UK by the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohamed Bin Salman, by eulogising earlier today the reform initiatives introduced by the de facto ruler of the Kingdom.
Writing in the Times, Johnson said that the Crown Prince “has introduced exactly the kind of reforms that we have always advocated” before citing reasons for why the two countries should continue their close relationship.
Johnson’s comments, which fail to mention the most serious concerns over Saudi/UK relations, are likely to frustrate campaigners protesting against the visit even more. Human rights groups are planning demonstrations during Bin Salman’s visit to London on 7 March. He will hold talks with British Prime Minister Theresa May and other senior ministers. It will be his first trip to Britain since being named heir to the throne last summer when he effectively took over running the country.
Johnson, who it appears felt the need to defend Number 10’s decision to invite the 32-year-old prince who is spearheading many controversial policies in the Kingdom, said that Bin Salam deserved support while pointing to his decision to overturn a ban on women driving, relaxing gender segregation and setting a target to get more women into the Saudi workforce.
“If you are inclined to dismiss these advances, then I will respectfully suggest that you are making a profound mistake,” he wrote in an article for the Times newspaper.
“Change does not come easily in Saudi Arabia. In a matter of a few months, genuine reform has taken place after decades of stasis.”
Describing Saudi Arabia as one of Britain’s “oldest friends in the region”, Johnson highlighted the importance of defence cooperation both to counter Daesh and as a diplomatic counterweight to Iran’s Middle East influence.
Critics of Bin Salman rarely point to his social and economic reforms in their denunciation of the young prince. The war in Yemen, described by the UN as “the worst humanitarian crises since the Second World War”, the clampdown on dissenting voices and rights organisations and his decision to push the region into further instability by imposing a blockade on Qatar, are amongst the biggest concerns.
On top of the list however is the British government’s decision to continue selling weapons to the Kingdom when it’s been accused of committing human rights violations in a war that has cost the lives of more than 10,000 Yemenis.
Johnson however had little to say about any of those concerns and instead made remarks about UK’s cooperation with the Saudis to push back against Iran. He also mentioned Britain’s efforts to help bring the war in Yemen to an end. These claims are unlikely to convince critics seeing as Britain’s efforts have been incredibly ineffective so far in bringing an end to the conflict described by many as Saudi’s Vietnam; having no sign of ending after lasting far longer than Bin Salman initially anticipated.
Despite Bin Salman’s controversial policies, Britain has openly sought to woo Saudi Arabia, in particular ahead of the expected stock market listing of state oil company Saudi Aramco, which could be the largest such offering in history. Both May and US President Donald Trump want the potentially lucrative listing to take place on their stock exchanges.
Britain’s embrace of Bin Salman is likely to be seen as further validation of his policies. Earlier in the week the young prince gave an interview to the press where he appeared to double down on his reform agenda. He described his reform agenda as a “shock” therapy for the Kingdom. Speaking to journalists at the Washington Post, he compared his policies to the way doctors fight cancer. “You have a body that has cancer everywhere, the cancer of corruption. You need to have chemo, the shock of chemo, or the cancer will eat the body.”