On March 9, the Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman concluded a two-day state visit to the United Kingdom. During his three-day visit Bin Salman met with Prime-Minister Theresa May, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, and members of the royal family, drawing widespread criticism and associated protests from rights groups and concerned individuals. As heir to the crown, Bin Salman is often referred to as the architect of the war in Yemen. Protestors drew attention to what they termed as unjust aggression by Saudi Arabia towards its southern neighbour and called on the UK government to cease its complicity in the conflict by ending arms sales to the Kingdom.
Demonstrations and vocalizations of opposition to Bin Salman’s visit emerged on multiple fronts. On March 7, The Independent reported that hundreds were gathered in protest outside 10 Downing Street as talks with the Crown Prince were held inside. This comes in light of a petition formed prior to the arrival of the Crown Prince that calls upon Theresa May to cancel the visit in acknowledgement of alleged atrocities in Yemen. Al Jazeera reported that this petition was signed by “tens of thousands of Britons”. Upon arrival in the country Bin Salman was met by protesters, however, his statement said that such acts are a British tradition and would not compromise the purpose of his visit. Furthermore, Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir stated that the “[opposition group’s] positions are based on misunderstanding and not knowing,” regarding the war in Yemen.
In the week prior to the visit, Stop the War Coalition, the Campaign Against Arms Trade and the Arab Human Rights Organization penned an open letter explaining the involvement of the Crown Prince in the Yemeni conflict and his actions correlations with the worsening humanitarian crisis in Yemen. A report published by Human Rights Watch earlier this year stated that 87 unlawful attacks had been carried out by the Saudi led coalition, resulting in over 1000 civilian casualties. Due to the exacerbating effects of war, Yemen has faced the worst cholera outbreak in history, which some sources report to be nearing its one-millionth case. Stephen Bell, a prominent activist in the campaign to stop the visit, stated that in light of such evidence that, “it’s not suitable to invite someone who holds prime responsibility for the continuation of the war.”
Despite widespread demands from the British opposition, the public, and various rights groups, British government officials made little effort to address these concerns. Rather, British officials emphasized that Saudi Arabia is a crucial ally in fighting terrorism and an important partner in trade. The latter, as well as making reference to existing lucrative business agreements, may allude to the desire of the British government to have the Saudi state-owned oil giant Aramco floated on their markets. The value of the flotation of Aramco has been estimated to be as high as 1.5 trillion USD. Such a deal in the post-Brexit climate would be increasingly significant. Furthermore, Britain’s reluctance to put pressure on the Kingdom may be due to direct profits British companies receive through arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition.
During Bin Salman’s visit, issues regarding human rights and the continuing humanitarian crisis in Yemen were largely ignored. These issues aroused significant discontent among both the public and the opposition, giving rise to the argument that the British administration had the obligation to raise the concerns of what appears to be a large portion of the constituency. The visit may have been successful with respect to Britain’s financial interests, however at what cost to human rights?