(LONDON) — Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is in London for a blockbuster three-day state visit, his first global tour since taking office that will include stops in New York and Washington.
He’s the most powerful man in the kingdom and, while not technically the head of state, the 32-year-old royal is getting a splashy red carpet welcome fit for a king.
An all-out public relations blitz was in full view before his trip. Billboards popped up this week across London and along the roads from Heathrow airport promoting the visit. There were two billboards within view of the ABC News London bureau reading, “He is creating a new, vibrant Saudi Arabia.”
And there were even vans driving around the city with welcome messages.
MBS, as the young prince is known, is being touted as a revolutionary back home. He is opening doors in the staunchly conservative kingdom, and shopping around for global support for his grand economic blueprint, dubbed Vision 2030, aimed at reducing the country’s dependence on oil amid global slumping prices.
For the first time in history, women will be allowed to drive in the kingdom, go to cinemas and attend sports games. And earlier this year, he rounded up senior officials and businessmen, even members of the royal family, in a corruption crackdown.
Since coming into power in the summer of 2016, leapfrogging his older cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef, MBS has grabbed, consolidated and inherited much of the power over the kingdom, still officially ruled by his father, King Salman, 81.
He is apparently his father’s favorite son, and his titles now include defense minister, deputy prime minister, chairman of the Supreme Economic Council, head of a council overseeing the state-run oil giant Saudi Aramco, head of the Public Investment Fund and a pivotal member of the Council of Political and Security Affairs, among others.
In a recent op-ed in the Times of London, U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson implored Brits not to dismiss such advances in “one of Britain’s oldest friends in the region.”
“What conclusion should we draw?” Johnson wrote. “I believe that the crown prince, who is only 32, has demonstrated by word and deed that he aims to guide Saudi Arabia in a more open direction.”
He added: “Be in no doubt: the future of Saudi Arabia — and indeed the region and the wider Muslim world — depends on his success.”
He kicked off his visit Wednesday, lunching with Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace.
And Wednesday afternoon, he met with British Prime Minister Theresa May.
Thursday is International Women’s Day, and May told the House of Commons Wednesday she welcomed “the fact that the Crown Prince will be sitting with – and as of the guest of a female prime minister.”
Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn asked May whether she would hold the prince’s feet to the fire over the British arms deals, which, alongside U.S. weapons sales, have supplied Saudi with the firepower to continue its war on Yemen.
“As she makes her arms sales pitch,” Corbyn asked Wednesday, “will she also call on the crown prince to halt the shocking abuse of human rights in Saudi Arabia?”
The U.K. has raked in some $6.3 billion worth of military equipment since the bombardment against Yemen began in 2015, according to the Campaign Against the Arms Trade.
That includes aircraft, helicopters, drones, grenades, bombs and missiles, according to the nongovernmental organization that focuses on the international arms trade.
Yemen, the Middle East’s poorest country, is now in its third year of war between the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and Saudi-backed forces loyal to exiled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. And as Saudi defense minister, Prince Mohammed bin Salman is largely thought to be the architect of that country’s campaign.
The Saudi-led coalition has been accused by human rights groups of airstrikes on civilian targets, some of which, Amnesty International and others say, may amount to war crimes.
May, the British prime minister, said before the meeting that she would speak “frankly and constructively” about “issues of concern including regional security and the conflict and humanitarian situation in Yemen.”
It’s the world’s worst humanitarian disaster right now, according to the United Nations, and nongovernmental organizations and human rights groups have organized protests across London.
In front of Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing Street Wednesday, demonstrators chanted “hands off Yemen” and “No more profits from bin Salman’s wars.” There was even an activist dressed up as the prince holding fake corpses wrapped in sheets, with fake blood.
Along with other human rights organizations, Human Rights Watch advocated for a less cozy welcome for the prince.
“Despite MBS’ ambitious reform rhetoric and his stated desire to transform the country economically and politically, repression and human rights violations have increased in the kingdom under his leadership,” the U.K. director, David Mepham, wrote in an op-ed.
“Britain should not continue to arm the Saudis when those weapons could be used to attack schools, hospitals, markets and mosques in Yemen, and when the Saudi-led coalition has already conducted scores of strikes that have violated the laws of war, many likely war crimes,” he added.
But despite the tricky political balancing act regarding the war in Yemen and the country’s poor human right’s record, the prince is here to talk big business at a time when the U.K. needs to forge strong bilateral post-Brexit relationships.
In the same op-ed in the Times, Foreign Secretary Johnson noted that British jobs depend on a strong business relationship, writing that exports to Saudi Arabia climbed to $8.6 billion in 2016, a 41 percent rise since 2010.
British ministers have also expressed interest in listing Saudi Aramco on the London Stock Exchange. New York and Hong Kong are also vying for the spot as the Saudi royal family searches for a stock market listing for the kingdom’s state-owned oil company. President Donald Trump has repeatedly expressed interest in the deal.
Only 5 percent of shares in the company are expected to be put up for sale, but it will still be the biggest initial public offering (IPO) in the world, and could be valued up to $2 trillion.
The Aramco IPO will also be a big topic of discussion when the prince continues his global tour. Next stop: Paris. And then he’ll head stateside, visiting New York and Washington from March 19-22.
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