The Circus Comes to Town

An extraordinary welcome is laid on for Muhammad Bin-Salman in London

 

By Abdel Bari Atwan

London these days is hosting a political circus without precedent, featuring a variety of performers and impresarios and a clash of political colours, due to the three-day visit of the crown prince of Saudi Arabia which began on Wednesday.

Days before his arrival, huge illuminated billboards appeared along roadsides in the British capital hailing Prince Muhammad Bin-Salman as a reformer, modernizer and saviour of his nation and celebrating his country’s historic ties with Britain. His image was also emblazoned on the sides of double-decker buses and black taxi cabs, along with slogans praising his virtues and welcoming his visit. In contrast, a lone protestors’ bus circled around Westminster Square in front of the House of Commons, bearing a banner that read: ’Saudi Crown Prince: War Criminal.’  Clearly, the PR contest was won hands-down by the side with the most money.

These expressions of admiration and welcome were, of course, the work of various public relations firms on the Saudi government’s payroll. Yet the reception laid on by the British government for the young Saudi strongman was remarkable: it was fit for a king rather than an heir apparent or a deputy head of government, and indeed, in terms of the political attention paid to it and the accompanying trappings, exceeded what was accorded to former Saudi monarchs like Abdallah and Fahd when they paid state visits to the UK.

To underline the warmth of the reception, he was treated on arrival to a lunch with Queen Elizabeth II, followed by talks with Prime Minister Theresa May, and then a banquet hosted by heir apparent Prince Charles and his son and the likely future monarch William.

This came against the backdrop of a vociferous campaign, involving a host of anti-war and human rights groups and backed by various political organizations, to protest against Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen. Images of the victims followed Muhammad Bin-Salman wherever he went. This turned the deadly Saudi-led war on and blockade into the dominated issue in – and the biggest irritant to – the Saudi crown prince’s visit. The opposition Labour party’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Emily Thornberry, noted that Saudi warplanes were launching an average of one airstrike in Yemen every 93 minutes, and one Yemeni child was being killed every ten minutes. The party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, demanded an end to all British arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

But these protests are unlikely to have much effect on May’s Conservative government. It will continue doing its utmost to exploit this visit by the de facto ruler of the Middle East’s richest country to garner as many billions as it can in arms and investment deals. Hence Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s extravagant flattery of the crown prince and his talk of a new unfolding strategic relationship between the two countries and of Britain’s support for Saudi Arabia’s right to self-defence. This was accompanied the announcement that the two countries would form a joint council to discuss international and economic issues, including tens of billions of pounds in mutual investments.

The UK government is unlikely to listen to Corbyn or follow in the footsteps of Germany, which announced a halt to arms exports to Saudi Arabia in protest at its conduct of the Yemen war. Nor will it heed the advice of the Islamic Council of Britain, which urged it not to be duped by the reformist façade which was being used to conceal the absence of democracy and the arrests of activists in Saudi Arabia – arguably the majority view among the British public. All the government cares about is money, trade deals and creating jobs for post-Brexit Britain.

Muhammad Bin-Salman has indeed introduced some social reforms to appeal to Saudi youth who constitute some 70% of the population, and made a highly selective show of combating high-level corruption. But this means little and its effect will be short-lived in the absence of any political reform. Saudi youth will not suffice for long with being allowed a little entertainment, gender-mixing and relaxation of strict religious reforms, but will eventually go on to demand political participation, more human rights and greater transparency.

Bin-Salman has described the changes he has made as delivering ‘shock therapy’ to a calcified, conservative society that lives in a past age. His description may be appropriate. But his problem is that shocks have only an immediate impact. It dissipates quickly unless accompanied by comprehensive reforms that, first of all, make whatever has been achieved sustainable, and secondly, establish the basis for a modern state based on institutions.

It may be true that Muhammad Bin-Salman has thrown a huge rock into a stagnant pool. But it is not enough to hurl rock and stones – and neither he nor his advisors seem capable of comprehending that. The circus in London will pack up as soon as the visit ends. The billboards will be changed and the portraits taken down and into storage, and all concerned will bank their cheques and go home.  But Saudi Arabia’s stark realities and multiple challenges will remain unchanged, above all the nightmare of the never-ending Yemen war which is open to all eventualities.

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