LONDON (Reuters) – Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to London will turn to defence and security on Friday as he meets British defence minister Gavin Williamson, touching on the most contentious element of his trip: arms sales.
Britain and Saudi Arabia have set themselves a 65 billion pound trade and investment target for the coming years, with London looking for new post-Brexit markets for its services sector, and Prince Mohammed seeking to convince wary investors his country is a tolerant and modernising place.
But, for now the beating heart of bilateral trade ties remains defence and security. Britain credits Saudi intelligence sharing with saving British lives and has licensed billions of pounds of weapons and ammunition sales to Saudi Arabia.
That has provided a controversial backdrop to the warm diplomatic welcome for Prince Mohammed, with hundreds turning out on Wednesday to protest the arms deals and Saudi Arabia’s role in the Yemen war.
Nevertheless, Friday’s meeting is expected to include talks on the sale of up to 48 Typhoon fighter jets made by British firm BAE Systems – a multi-billion pound deal which has been under discussion for years but has proven tough to seal.
Prime Minister Theresa May defended the two countries defence ties on Wednesday, saying all arms sales were strictly regulated, but has also repeatedly raised concerns about humanitarian crisis in Yemen directly with Prince Mohammed.
The thorny topic was due to be discussed at a private dinner inside May’s country residence on Thursday night, but was tempered with gifts: May’s office said she presented Prince Mohammed with a family tree showing the descent of the Al Saud dynasty.
Downing Street said the framed document was originally created by Queen Victoria’s consul general in Jeddah in 1880
(Reporting by William James in London and Stephen Kalin in Riyadh; Editing by Hugh Lawson)