By Michael Glackin
The Daily Star
Monday, March 12 2018
I wonder what Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman will consider the highlight of his high-profile visit to the U.K. last week. The “outline deal” with the U.K. government to buy more Eurofighter Typhoon jets? Maybe it was state-owned Saudi Aramco’s “preliminary deal” to pursue “international gas opportunities” (read shale gas) with Royal Dutch Shell?
For me it was the crown prince’s meeting with Queen Elizabeth.
Amid the splendor of the Buckingham Palace room in which the monarchs met, it was ironic, to say the least, that the queen had plugged in a cheap two-bar electric fire to provide heat for the man whose country sits on top of the world’s largest oil reserves. Was the queen subtly making a point about her fears for an impoverished post-Brexit U.K.?
Certainly the $35 heater struck an incongruous note in a room that includes a $7 million Gainsborough portrait and a $2.7 million Canaletto.
The queen’s thriftiness was in stark contrast to the extravagant PR blitz that accompanied the crown prince, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia who likes to be known as MBS. Saudi lobbyists spent millions of dollars on advertisements in U.K. newspapers and on large roadside billboards in London bearing MBS’ face and extolling both his virtues and those of “the united kingdoms.”
Ironically, the billboards reminded me of the type that the Syrian regime used to hang over parts of Beirut of Hafez and Bashar Assad before 2005.
The PR charm offensive was aimed at combating anticipated protests over Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and its conduct in Yemen. The 3-year-old war has claimed the lives tens of thousands of civilians – most of which can be attributed to Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign – and looks increasingly unwinnable for either side. It is of course MBS’ war. He created and presides over the coalition opposing the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. But much of Saudi Arabia’s firepower is provided by U.K. defense firms, who have done around $6.5 billion of business with the kingdom since it began its bombardment of Yemen in 2015.
The U.K. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn denounced Saudi Arabia’s role in Yemen in Parliament and demanded the government halt all arms sales to the kingdom. It is worth noting that the new German government already has a weapons embargo on Saudi Arabia written into its coalition agreement.
Mindful of the potential backlash, Saudi Arabia has increased its aid to Yemen by $2 billion and is currently propping up the beleaguered Yemeni central bank.
As it turned out, the protests were far fewer than anticipated, amounting to a few hundred people outside Downing Street during MBS’ meeting with Prime Minister Theresa May.
For this May’s Brexit-bound government was extremely grateful. The prime minister cannot afford to upset prospective trade partners as she seeks to plug economic holes left by exiting the world’s largest trading bloc.
Along with the trade deals, the London Stock Exchange is vying to handle the impending flotation of Saudi Aramco, the national oil behemoth, which could be the world’s biggest listing. It is worth noting that MBS’ delegation in London included Saudi Arabia’s Oil Minister Khalid al-Falih and Aramco’s Chief Executive Amin Nasser.
Saudi Arabia’s desire to list around 5 percent of Aramco’s shares on an international exchange – worth an estimated $100 billion and valuing the company at $2 trillion – has led to a beauty parade of stock markets. London is widely seen as the favorite for the listing – even though it will require a tweak of the U.K. exchange’s rules – but it could still go to New York or perhaps even Hong Kong.
China is an increasingly important customer for Saudi crude although Russia remains its main supplier.
London is favorite partly because of fears the U.S. Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, passed in 2016, could expose the kingdom to lawsuits over the role of its citizens in the terror attacks on the World Trade Center in New York in 2011. Saudi Arabia vigorously denies any allegations of course, but the potential legal risk cannot be ignored.
In an interview during the visit, Falih said: “I would say litigation and liability are a big concern in the U.S. Quite frankly Saudi Aramco is too big and too important for the kingdom to be subjected to that kind of risk.”
That said, the potential for a lessfriendly government in the U.K. led by Corbyn, who is perceived to be close to Iran and Hezbollah, are risks that Saudi Arabia may also deem too great to take with the kingdom’s prized jewel.
The final decision of course, lies with MBS. Hence the U.K.’s eagerness to impress, which meant MBS didn’t just get lunch with the queen, but also dinner with Prince Charles. Indeed, even the archbishop of Canterbury was on hand to press the flesh. The pair had “cordial and honest” discussion about Yemen and the ban on non-Muslim faiths practicing openly in Saudi Arabia.
The last meeting is significant, and a reminder that there is more to the U.K.’s current engagement with Saudi Arabia than just trade.
Since taking the reins of power in Saudi Arabia, MBS has taken on the ultraconservative religious establishment, most notably by removing the power of the kingdom’s religious police to arrest people, ending the ban on women driving and lifting the four-decade-long restrictions on cinemas and pop concerts in the kingdom.
MBS’ reform program is tied up with transforming the kingdom’s economy to ensure it can create jobs, beyond civil service sinecures funded by oil revenues, for young and ambitious Saudis.
At 32 years old, MBS is, as he likes to point out, older than two-thirds of his father’s subjects.
His high-profile crackdown on corruption, which last year turned Riyadh’s fivestar Ritz-Carlton hotel into the world’s most upmarket jail, also appears to have garnered tens of billions of dollars back into the kingdom’s coffers.
The reality, at long last, is that Saudi Arabia is moving in the right direction.
It is worth remembering that democracies do not spring up overnight. Progress is always measured in small, tentative steps before reaching the final destination.
May understands what MBS is attempting to achieve, welcomes it and wants to encourage him to go continue. Critics should ask themselves what the alternative to supporting MBS’ attempts to drag Saudi Arabia into the 21st century are – a resurgence of the ultraconservative forces within the House of Saud?
Of course the U.K. has a vested interest in all this, but post-Brexit economic fears are only part of it. If the U.K. has any hope of maintaining a global political role in the coming years, “punching above its weight,” helping the most important power in the Middle East to navigate its internal and foreign policy challenges may prove the best means to achieve it. The U.K. government was at pains to stress the close cooperation between the two governments on security matters.
Meanwhile, MBS will next head to the U.S., in his first official visit to the kingdom’s most important ally since the effective palace coup that deposed his older cousin, Prince Mohammad bin Nayef.
You can be sure President Donald Trump will have more than a two-bar electric fire to warm MBS up for his plans.
Michael Glackin is a former managing editor of THE DAILY STAR. A version of this article appeared in The Daily Star print edition on March 12 2018 on page 7.