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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Saudi Crown Prince leaves UK after efforts at public diplomacy

London and Riyadh conclude a $90 billion trade and investment target

London was plastered with posters of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ahead of his three day trip to the UK this past week.
London was plastered with posters of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ahead of his three day trip to the UK this past week.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to London, which ended with British officials hailing a new era of relations with the kingdom, could serve as a template for his US trip this week.

Prince Mohammed's British mission concluded on Friday, following three days of largely private meetings with Queen Elizabeth and Prime Minister Theresa May among others.

The prince also met with 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 visit focused on broadening trade and investment ties and focused primarily on defence and security, concluding in trade deals worth more than $2 billion (Dh7.3 billion).

The two countries also signed a letter of intent to finalise years-long talks on a multi-billion-pound order for 48 Typhoon aircraft made by BAE systems. It follows an earlier Saudi order of 72 Typhoons.

“The crown prince’s visit has opened a new chapter in our two countries’ historic relationship,” British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson said. “We have taken a vital step toward finalising another order for Typhoon jets that will increase security in the Middle East and boost British industry and jobs in our unrivalled aerospace sector,” he said.

London and Riyadh concluded the Crown Prince’s visit by setting a $90 billion trade and investment target for the coming years as London looks for post-Brexit markets and the kingdom pushes ahead with its plan for modernisation.

While Saudi visits to the UK have traditionally been defined by their focus on arms deals, Prince Mohammed’s new vision saw both sides attempting to move beyond this.

As Michael Stephens, an analyst at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) told CNBC “it’s to get away from this perception that the UK just cares about selling arms to the Gulf States, which traditionally has been the way in which the success of our relationship with each of these Gulf States has been measured”.

Jane Kinninmont, a senior-research fellow at Chatham House, also saw the trip as a shift in strategy.

“Traditionally Saudi Arabia has had very little soft-power in the west ... with this trip there has been a lot of outreach,” she said.

“They are certainly trying to change the perception of the country, and to create an image of MBS as someone who’s driving social change and not just somebody who has to be dealt with.”

A conference organised by the kingdom’s royal charity MiSK saw young UK-based Saudis taking to the stage to speak about their country’s growing ability to accommodate its youth’s interests and ambitions – a manifestation of the Crown Prince’s reform programme Vision 2030.

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Comment: Mohammed bin Salman's London visit marks a key moment in Saudi Arabia's transformation programme

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There are huge expectation that the kingdom’s 200,000 students who were sent abroad to study will return ween the country off its reliance on oil. It has become a flagship policy of Saudi Arabia and many other Gulf States have followed suit.

There too was a three-day exhibition in London’s Berkeley Square, named Saudi Cultural Days. The centre piece of which was an interactive screen displaying the intricate craft of Al Qatt Al Asiri, an age-old craft practice by women in the region of Asir in the south west of the country.

“The reform is stepping into cultural areas that have long remained dormant … there is restructuration and re-examination on all levels” said female Shura Council Member Dr Hoda Al Helaissi during an event at RUSI.

During an event at Chatham House, Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al Saud also alluded to the country's changing social arena: “the choices that women have in Saudi Arabia are greater today than what they were yesterday and will be better tomorrow.”

But the kingdom still needs to convince sceptical investors that the reforms, which are still in their early stages, will roll out smoothly.

Chatham House's Ms Kinninmont says the Crown Prince’s tour is likely to encounter bigger challenges on his US leg of the tour, owing to a much greater gulf in opinions between the Saudi-friendly US president and the wider American public.

As Prince Mohammed readies himself to visit the Washington next week it remains to be seen if the UK visit did in fact served as a template for how the country hopes to engage with foreign allies or if it was a one-off display of openness set to be challenged.