Western businesses should engage with Mohammad bin Salman - to help bring about further reform in Saudi Arabia

It is industries like education and training, financial services, technology and leisure that Riyadh needs to help create change. Britain is a world leader in all of those

Jim Armitage
Thursday 08 March 2018 20:38 GMT
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman arrives for a private meeting at Lambeth Palace hosted by the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman arrives for a private meeting at Lambeth Palace hosted by the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby (Reuters)

Saudi Arabia may leave business leaders feeling queasy over human rights and last year’s purge of the Establishment. But it is right that commerce in the West engages with the reforming Mohammad bin Salman.

Not just for the reasons put about by the Conservative right, that Brexit means we must take money from anybody. But because trade is the way to encourage, cajole and bring about further change for the benefit of the Saudi people.

MBS, as he’s known, is already revolutionising his society, with greater rights for women, lifting curbs on music and cinema and diversifying the economy away from oil.

He’s doing this because, like tens of thousands of Saudis who have studied here in London, he is young and engaged with the West. The more UK businesses go to the Kingdom and employ local staff, the greater that engagement will become and the more pressure he can exert on conservatives in the Saudi royal family to reform.

For all the PR stories about cinemas opening up in Riyadh and US rappers doing gigs, for me, the most extraordinary sign of change was when it emerged that MBS had quietly hosted a visit from Sir Richard Branson.

Think about it: one of the most conservative regimes in the world courting a libertarian, pro-gay rights, pro-drugs decriminalisation tycoon who made his fortune from a rock 'n' roll brand named Virgin.

Like him or loathe him, Branson could do far more to persuade MBS of the benefits of our western ways than all manner of state sanctions and diplomatic cold shoulders.

Diplomats and politicians have always seemed to focus on defence when it comes to Saudi trade, loving the vast individual contracts it brings. But in the new Saudi, it is softer industries that the country needs just as much: education and training, financial services, technology, healthcare, leisure. Britain is a world leader in all of those. We can help and profit.

MBS needs to be shown that the West appreciates what he’s trying to achieve and encourages him to go further.

If we drew in our economic horns in horror that he’s not gone far enough on human rights, or done the right thing in Yemen, we will merely worsen the economy of an already-troubled ally in the most unstable part of the world. We would be letting down the 70 per cent of Saudi’s population that’s under-30 and in need of work at a time when the low oil price has crippled GDP.

Nobody would benefit from that, except the nihilistic fundamentalists who wish us harm.

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