By Arab News
By Alistair Burt
Well-sourced leaks emerged from the British government late last week that an invitation to visit the UK had been offered to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman following a phone call between him and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Thursday.
There is little doubt that the visit will attract much divided comment, but let us be clear from the outset that such an opportunity is very much in the interest of the UK, and is the right call by Sunak and Foreign Secretary James Cleverly.
First, the Kingdom is demonstrably changing. The UK needs to understand this even more, and be engaged with it, and it is impossible to do so without the highest-level relationship with the principal driver of change, the crown prince.
To those in the UK unfamiliar with the present-day region, the pace of change might be difficult to grasp. It was well summed up in Thomas Friedman’s keynote article for The New York Times in June, contrasting today’s Saudi Arabia and Israel. “If you have not been to Saudi Arabia in the last five years, you may as well not have been there at all,” he wrote.
From the changing role of women in the workforce — 19 percent in 2018 to 37 percent now — and the liberalizing of social gatherings, to the technology required to shift from a carbon economy and deliver Vision 2030, not just an inventory is required but also an understanding of the pathway and ideological milestones, including the hurdles.
UK business and sport has been ahead of the curve, from NEOM as a destination for some of Britain’s most innovative companies to the Premier League and Newcastle United. It is not surprising that Downing Street recognizes this and wants to explore much more than a free trade deal.
Second, the region is changing fast. The gradual breaking down of a post-war order, from the time of debates in the UK about “East of Suez” to more recent US responses to events in Syria or attacks emanating from Yemen, has altered perceptions of alliances and regional politics. The result has been a more self-assertive Gulf, not always easy partners, even with each other, as the rift in the GCC demonstrated, but appreciating that decisions about mutual security increasingly lie in their own hands to negotiate and maintain.
The UK has vital interests to protect, particularly in trade and defense, so for us not to be engaged with the regional power that is Saudi Arabia would be foolish. Equally, while regional diplomacy might no longer look over its shoulder to the UK as it once did, having the ear of a UN Security Council member, with its diplomatic, intelligence and military reach, suggests both sides will gain from sharing ideas about “where next?”
What will emerge from the talks with Iran, or with Israel? The UK has a profound interest in both. As a nuclear power and signatory to the Iran deal, the UK will support decreasing tension between Tehran and Riyadh, but will understandably be interested in the terms. On Israel, the UK should welcome the opportunity to draw decades of enmity to a close, and build a new economy in the region that fully and openly includes Israel. But it should also, from its wealth of history, do all it can to highlight the immense opportunity to close the painful chapter on Palestinian injustice, emphasizing that any “normalization” should galvanize all parties to finally deliver Palestinian statehood, and Israeli security and peace, for too many who have suffered for too long.
Third, the world is changing fast. States no longer need to measure themselves against the will of the West. There are others knocking at the door of our long-term friends, and it should no longer be a surprise to us that it is perfectly reasonable for them to act in their own interests, as we have always done. There are many reasons why all our friends in the Gulf, with whom we have stood close under many threats in the past, should continue to do so. But we need to be aware that China, Russia and other competitors will lose no time pursuing avenues should the UK not do so.
Good relationships are multi-faceted, and the best involve frankness in recognizing differences and challenges, as well as embracing mutual opportunity. The crown prince’s visit will not ignore human rights issues, under the long shadow of Jamal Khashoggi, on which the UK has been forceful, and those involved in the visit should expect this. But history, in not forgetting, also provides opportunities for a reset to face contemporary challenges, not least climate change and potential catastrophe.
There is no influence without engagement — onlookers should hope for, and encourage, a mutually successful visit.
- Alistair Burt is a former UK Member of Parliament who has twice held ministerial positions in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office — as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State from 2010 to 2013 and as Minister of State for the Middle East from 2017 to 2019. Twitter: @AlistairBurtUK