The arrival of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman this week presents a unique opportunity for our two countries to usher in a new era of trade and investment.
Relations between these nations have considerable history. Saudi Arabia and Britain have enjoyed a close friendship dating back 100 years.
What makes the timing of Prince Mohammed’s visit different is the extraordinary coincidence of once-in-a-generation, genuinely transformative changes occurring in both countries.
In the UK, the approaching departure from the EU has injected new zeal into global trade relations. The conclusion of free trade agreements with major economic blocs, such as the Gulf Cooperation Council that Saudi Arabia leads, will demonstrate the seriousness of Britain’s commercial aspirations and its enduring attractiveness.
In Saudi, the most ambitious reforms ever undertaken are being enacted through the 2030 National Vision and economic National Transformation Plan. Representing a new blueprint to bring Saudi into a post-oil age, they have been described by veteran US congressman Dennis Ross as “a revolution disguised as reform”.
It is quite serendipitous that the sectors in Saudi requiring external support are areas of serious British expertise: education and training, renewables, financial services, retail, and manufacturing.
So what exactly can we expect to come out of this week’s visit? This is very much a trip aimed at drumming up business, cementing investment opportunities, and showing how we can work together.
This is about the Crown Prince wanting to share his ambition for Saudi Arabia, to explain his thinking, and sell the idea of a country that is modernising both economically and socially at a furious pace, while always keeping an eye on that declared aim of ending its reliance on oil.
Prince Mohammed and his accompanying ministers will look for investments in the UK, and, by return, present opportunities for UK-based investors to profit from Saudi’s economic growth. Business deals will be pursued with an eye on job creation in both countries.
The 40,000 British nationals making a living in Saudi Arabia will tell you that Britain’s historic relationship is not on its own enough to secure the lion’s share of the deals on offer. The visit of President Trump last year heralded the signing of $100bn worth of ventures, while the Asian states, led by China, have swept into the top positions among Saudi’s largest trading partners.
The good news is that neither the Americans nor Chinese will be in London for Prince Mohammed’s visit this week, and British firms will meet their Saudi counterparts bilaterally.
For the London Stock Exchange, this means presenting its proposal for Saudi Aramco’s gargantuan share listing that will bring considerable business and prestige to whichever financial centre wins. For an education firm, it entails showing the Saudis depth and breadth and quality of work, the seriousness with which responsibilities are undertaken, the care and respect applied to clients. For an SME manufacturer, it means a new export market that values long-term relationships and British business culture.
It’s a truly unique occasion: two nations at particular junctures in their histories, that both need each other, and can help each other. I will be following events with interest from Riyadh, and would like to wish all parties every success.