The Prince and the PM
Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, came to Downing Street on Wednesday, having had lunch with the queen. Yesterday evening he dined at Chequers. A petition against his visit, just passing the 10,000 signatures at which the government must respond, elicited a statement assuring the public that British values would be stressed during the visit, and that UK arms export licences were subject to the highest standards of scrutiny concerning their eventual targeting. There are guests at Yemeni funerals who would no doubt beg to differ.
In many ways it was a Brexit meeting. Arms sales to Saudi Arabia have blossomed under the Tories – £4.6 billion since the bombing of Yemen began in March 2015 – and the two leaders' body language in a photo op bolstered the jibes that Britain has been made the Kingdom's vassal state. The large, young prince sat with his arms spread, entirely at ease; Theresa May hugged at her chair arm as if the economy depended on it, but her face appeared to say, with great discomfort, that she is doing something she knows she shouldn't.
Eagerness to control the optics of the visit runs two ways. bin Salman – despite the detention of other members of the Saudi royal family, despite the abduction and forced resignation of the Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri, despite the war crimes in Yemen – is at pains to be seen as the change candidate. Money was spent on billboards across London, newspaper adverts, a mass of sponsored social media. The protesters outside Downing Street were not convinced.
Protest is outlawed in Saudi Arabia. The activist Raif Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1000 lashes (of which 50 were administered; any more would have killed him) for 'insulting Islam through electronic channels'. There are rumours that bin Salman is considering pardoning Badawi: a big ticket announcement, alongside giving women the right to drive, to burnish his reform credentials. But to pardon Badawi for his crime would still be to insist that what he did – writing a blog – is a crime.
Jeremy Corbyn hammered Theresa May with the Saudi visit at Prime Minister’s Questions. He has now said that cabinet members should be held accountable for deaths in Yemen, and questioned May’s wisdom in hosting a known violator of women’s rights on International Women’s Day. Labour's foreign policy agenda is not 'radical', but in line with much of the rest of Europe's: Germany has now banned arms sales to Saudi, following Norway’s decision to suspend sales to the UAE, Saudi’s coalition partner in Yemen.
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