Storm brews over Saudi Prince’s royal visit

Worlds apart: The Queen had already reigned for over 30 years when Mohammed bin Salman was born.

Is it wrong to offer Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince a state visit? Mohammed bin Salman arrives in the UK tomorrow and will dine with the Queen. But many say he should not be here at all.

One is a 91-year-old monarch with five great-grandchildren, who’s hobbies include pigeon racing and Scottish country dancing. The other is the 32-year-old de facto ruler of one of the most autocratic regimes on Earth, where thieves have their hands cut off and journalists are routinely imprisoned.

Yet later this week, Queen Elizabeth II and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) will have dinner together at Windsor Castle. The event is part of a Saudi state visit to the UK starting on Wednesday, in which the Prince will also meet Prime Minister Theresa May.

And they will have a lot to talk about. MBS is leading a revolution of reform in his native country: cracking down on corruption and tackling the nation’s woeful record on gender equality. One recent change was lifting a ban on female drivers.

This is his first diplomatic visit overseas, and MBS will be keen to secure the approval of foreign leaders.

His visit is also vital to the UK. Writing in The Times, foreign secretary Boris Johnson stressed that “thousands of British jobs” and billions of pounds depend on exports to Saudi Arabia — a partnership that will be more important after Brexit.

But it is not that simple. This trade relationship is based on Britain selling lots of weapons to Saudi Arabia, including bombs, missiles, and fighter jets.

And these weapons have had a devastating effect, used by Saudis in the brutal Yemen Civil War. Since the war began the UK has sold £4.6 billion worth of arms to the country, and some fear they have been used in illegal attacks against civilians. Indeed, a protest has been arranged to coincide with MBS’s visit, pressuring the UK to end arms sales.

But that is not all. Others argue that Saudi Arabia’s “atrocious” human rights record at home is enough to persuade Britain to cut ties. Kate Allen from Amnesty International cites its persistent use of “torture, unfair trials and grisly executions”.

So should the UK be allies with Saudi Arabia?

Sayonara Saudis

Of course, some say. Saudi Arabia has a chequered past, but MBS offers hope of a more democratic future. We can only help this transformation if we stay close. Furthermore, it’s in our interests — and not just in terms of trade. Sharing intelligence with the Saudis helps fight terrorism and gives the UK a strategic foothold in the turbulent Middle East.

That doesn’t cut it, others respond. By selling Saudis weapons and turning a blind eye to their horrific human rights record, the UK becomes complicit in the horror that results. Grubby trade deals are not worth the lives of innocent civilians. MBS needs the UK more than we need him, and severing ties will give him a proper incentive to sort his country out.

You Decide

  1. Is it always wrong to sell weapons?
  2. Is trade the best way to stop human rights abuses?


  1. Imagine you have the chance to interview MBS as part of his state visit. Your task is to find out as much as you can about life in Saudi Arabia, with only three questions. What questions would you ask?
  2. The UK’s relationship with Saudi Arabia is often a very divisive issue. Using the Boris Johnson and Simon Tisdall pieces under Become An Expert links, answer the following questions: Who do you find more convincing and why? If you could summarise their argument in one key quote what would it be?

Some People Say...

“You can't compare Saudi Arabia to other countries.”

Basmah bint Saud

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
MBS’s state visit will last for two days, beginning this Wednesday. Although the precise schedule has not be released, we know he is meeting the Queen and Theresa May. The UK and Saudi Arabia have long been allies, however arms deals between the two have increased in recent years. Britain sold over £1 billion worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia in 2017 alone.
What do we not know?
We do not know how far reforms in Saudi Arabia will go. MBS claims he wants to build a “country of moderate Islam”, however there remains a strong influence of hard line Islamism in Saudi society. The UK’s future relationship with the Saudis is also not set in stone. Jeremy Corbyn is a long term critic of the country, and relations would become far more uncertain if he won the next general election.

Word Watch

System in which a ruler has absolute power — the opposite of democratic. According to Freedom House, Saudi Arabia ranks as one of the ten worst countries in the world for civil liberties.
One notorious case was that of Raif Badawi, a blogger and activist who was sentenced to ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes after advocating for democracy and human rights.
For a clear and compelling introduction to the man, see the Vox video link under Become An Expert.
Eleven Princes and dozens of businessmen were arrested in a surprise crackdown last year. See The Day’s briefing under Become An Expert for more details.
Foreign leaders
As part of his tour, MBS has already visited Egypt and plans to fly to Washington after London.
Yemen Civil War
Yemen is split between the two main branches of Islam: Sunni and Shia. In 2015, a Shi’ite militia seized power, and Saudi Arabia responded with a bombing campaign to restore the previous government. The conflict has become a proxy war between Iran, the home of Shia Islam, and Saudi Arabia.

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