The Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has been invited to the UK on an official visit in late autumn, the first such visit by the heir to the Saudi throne since he was accused of masterminding the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist and dissident.
Numerous UK ministers have been to Saudi Arabia in the interim, and senior Saudi ministers have also come to the UK, including the foreign minister, Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud.
Prince Mohammed also spent nearly a week in Paris last month meeting the French president, Emmanuel Macron, and attending a climate finance summit.
News of the UK visit, first reported by the Financial Times, comes as Saudi Arabia tries to end the war in Yemen, and has opened up diplomatic relations with Iran. The US is seeking to persuade Saudi Arabia also to normalise diplomatic relations with Israel, but Riyadh, unlike its Gulf Arab allies the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, is resisting until there is progress on the Palestinian issue.
Saudi Arabia is also courting the UK vote in a November ballot to stage Expo 2030 in Riyadh, the point at which Saudi Arabia 2030 Vision, weaning the kingdom off fossil fuels, is supposed to be realised. The kingdom’s chief rival for Expo is Rome.
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 Riyadh’s key European partner. After a third round of trade talks in March, the UK said its analysis showed that, in the long run, a deal with the GCC would increase trade by at least 16%, adding at least £1.6bn a year to the British economy and contribute an additional £600m or more to UK wages.
Downing Street declined to say whether a formal invitation had been extended to Prince Mohammed. “We wouldn’t get into invites for foreign leaders,” said Rishi Sunak’s spokesperson, adding details of such visits would be “set out in the normal way”.
They added that the prime minister’s position on the killing of Khashoggi was that it was “a terrible crime” and Saudi Arabia “must ensure such an atrocity can never happen again”.
In a blow to Saudi-UK commercial relations, the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, this week announced he was not sanctioning the sale of Eurofighter jets to Saudi Arabia.
Britain’s BAE Systems struck a deal five years ago for the arms maker to supply 48 of the jets but a third of the components for them come from Germany, providing Berlin with a veto over where the jets are sold.
Germany wants to see more progress in the Saudi peace talks with the Houthi rebels who seized the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, in 2015. Saudi Arabia is also increasingly at odds with the United Arab Emirates over Yemen’s future, with the two countries backing rival groups in the country’s south, something that disturbs the Foreign Office.
The UK visit also comes as controversy spreads over Saudi’s alleged sportswashing, including investments in Newcastle United, the expansion of the Saudi domestic football league and the proposed merger between the PGA and Saudi Arabia’s money-laden LIV. The golf merger is the subject of US Senate hearings, with senators trying to see if it breaches antitrust laws.skip past newsletter promotion
In 2022, Saudi Arabia executed 196 people, the highest number of annual executions that Amnesty International has recorded in the country in the last 30 years. On 12 March last year, the government executed 81 men, including seven Yemenis and one Syrian, in the largest known mass execution in the kingdom’s history.
Polly Truscott, Amnesty International UK’s foreign policy adviser, said: “There must be no question of the UK rolling out the red carpet for Mohammed bin Salman, or of the Saudi ruler being able to use this visit to rehabilitate himself on the world stage.
“The visit looks set to coincide with the five-year anniversary of Jamal Khashoggi’s sickening assassination and dismemberment at the hands of Saudi agents in Turkey, a crime which has essentially been covered up by the unrepentant Saudi authorities.
“Mohammed bin Salman and his government must be properly held to account for abuses by Saudi officials, including Khashoggi’s murder, the widespread use of torture in Saudi jails and the indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Yemen.
“Among numerous other cases, Rishi Sunak must be prepared to confront the crown prince over the outrageous jailing of Salma al-Shehab, the Leeds PhD student who’s serving a 27-year jail sentence after an unfair trial for her tweets supporting women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.”