The UK Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, has faced criticism from human rights groups and opposition parties for inviting Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to visit the UK later this year.
The crown prince, who is widely seen as the de facto ruler of the oil-rich kingdom, has been accused of ordering the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 and presiding over a repressive regime that violates the rights of women, minorities, and dissidents.
The visit, which is expected to take place in the autumn, will be the first official trip to Britain by the crown prince since the killing of Khashoggi, who was a US resident and a columnist for The Washington Post. Khashoggi was lured into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where he was tortured, dismembered, and disposed of by a team of Saudi agents. A US intelligence report released in February 2021 concluded that the crown prince had approved the operation to capture or kill Khashoggi.
The invitation to the crown prince has sparked outrage among human rights activists, who have called on the UK government to cancel the visit and impose sanctions on Saudi Arabia for its role in the Yemen war, where it has led a coalition of Arab states that has bombed civilians and caused a humanitarian crisis. They have also urged the UK to stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia, which is one of its biggest customers.
The UK government has defended its decision to invite the crown prince, saying that it is in the national interest to maintain a “constructive” relationship with Saudi Arabia, which is a key ally in the Middle East and a strategic partner in trade, security, and energy. The government has also said that it raises human rights issues with Saudi Arabia “regularly and at the highest level”.
The visit by the crown prince is seen as part of a wider effort by Saudi Arabia to improve its image and reputation in the international arena, after being isolated and condemned by many countries following the Khashoggi murder. The crown prince has launched a series of reforms in recent years, such as allowing women to drive, opening up tourism, and hosting major sporting and cultural events. However, critics say that these changes are cosmetic and do not address the underlying issues of repression and lack of democracy in Saudi Arabia.
The crown prince is also seeking to diversify Saudi Arabia’s economy away from oil dependence and attract foreign investment as part of his ambitious Vision 2030 plan. He has expressed interest in collaborating with the UK on various sectors, such as renewable energy, technology, education, and health care.
The UK is currently negotiating a free trade agreement with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a bloc of six Arab states that includes Saudi Arabia. The UK hopes to boost its trade ties with the region after leaving the European Union.