By Arab News
By Faisal J. Abbas*
You can always count on the British to be skeptical; and before Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s landmark visit to London, there was no shortage of skepticism about the seriousness of the Saudi reform plans.
However, the British are also known for their sense of fairness; which is why, as the crown prince heads back to Riyadh, the overwhelming impression he left behind in London is that MBS means business.
It is one thing to merely talk about reform, but when talk is accompanied by action of the type we saw in the British capital over the past few days, then there really is no room for doubt.
The number of agreements reached was remarkable — whether they were political, such as the agreement at 10 Downing Street to form a strategic council to improve relations between the two kingdoms; or business-related and trade-focused, such as allowing some UK companies to operate in Saudi Arabia without the need for a local partner.
Even more remarkable was the historic meeting between the Archbishop of Canterbury and Prince Mohammed, who is next in line to be the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques in Makkah and Madinah. The Archbishop has been extended an invitation to visit Saudi Arabia, and I think I speak for most Saudis when I say we do hope His Grace takes up the invitation soon, as we look forward to more openness, tolerance and acceptance.
What also showed that the “proof of the pudding is in the eating” was that the accompanying Saudi delegation comprised an impressive mix of ministers, business executives, scientists, artists, journalists and citizens from different walks of life.
Worth noting, too, was the presence of inspirational women such as Princess Reema bint Bandar, Shoura Council member Huda Al-Halisi, Saudi Gazette Editor-in-Chief Somayya Jabarti, and the award-winning scientist Dr. Nouf Al-Numair — who, coincidentally, received the British Council’s UK Alumni Award for social impact only last week. It was important for these fine women to be present for Riyadh to show that our gender-equality reforms stretch far beyond allowing women to drive.
Of course, this was not a road show, nor was it intended to be; however, even our closest allies — such as the UK and the US — are going to need some convincing for them to be fully on board and help us with the large-scale reforms our kingdom needs on all levels.
Britain will also require help, especially as it ventures into a new future after Brexit; MBS’s visit has shown that Riyadh is determined to show that its deeply rooted economic and trade ties will not be shaken by the UK’s departure from the European Union.
More importantly, Saudi Arabia has provided — and will continue to provide — vital intelligence that saves British lives every day, and the two kingdoms will remain allies in the fight against terror and extremists worldwide.
With much skepticism laid to rest, the British now realize they have a real partner in the new Saudi leadership, and have finally sampled a taste of the real change that is happening on the ground.
To have achieved so much in just two years, with oil at record low prices, regional conflicts and lots of doubt — this is Saudi Arabia’s “If you are going through hell, keep going,” Churchillian moment.
• Faisal J. Abbas is the editor in chief of Arab News.