The heir to the Saudi Arabian throne began his visit to the UK on Wednesday amongst the backdrop of protests, mainly toward his country’s role in the Yemeni civil war.
Mohammed bin Salman, 32, began his trip by dining with Her Majesty the Queen at lunchtime on Wednesday. He later visited the Prime Minister, where they discussed future trade deals between the two nations. Talks agreed on an ambitious £65 billion trade agreement which a Downing Street spokesman described as a “demonstration of international confidence in our economy as we prepare to leave the European Union.” The UK already has strong trade links with Saudi Arabia, primarily through the sale of armaments and aircraft.
The Prince himself is seen as a modernising force in Saudi Arabia, with his ambitious ‘Vision 2030’ plan seeking to transition Saudi Arabia away from a fragile oil-based economy. He has also pushed for greater rights in the highly conservative country, such as women being allowed to drive, and initiated a hard crackdown on corruption in the country.
However, this too has been criticised for potentially shutting down critics of the Saudi regime. There have also been clear violations of human rights in the country. His reception in the UK has been challenged by politicians and the public. Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn decried Britain’s sales of weapons to the regime as “colluding in war crimes” against the Yemeni people in the ongoing civil war. Theresa May countered in the Commons by saying that Britain has increased humanitarian aid and already pressed the Saudis to open ports for aid to the rebels. She later raised concerns toward the humanitarian situation with the Prince when she met him after Prime Minister’s Questions. Protests have been held outside Parliament and Downing Street against Saudi Arabia’s role in the civil war.
The Yemeni civil war is an ongoing conflict in the Arabian Peninsula. Since 2015, the Yemeni government, led by Mansour alHadi, has fought Houthi rebels who assumed control of the country in what he describes as a “coup d’état.” The conflict has grown into a situation where both sides are backed by regional powers, the al-Hadi government by Saudi Arabia, alongside eight other Arab nations, and the Houthi rebels by Iran. The United States supports the Saudi Arabian coalition which is blockading the Houthi controlled regions of Yemen. This has led to famine and cholera outbreaks which the United Nations described in December as a “massive humanitarian crisis.”