Rishi Sunak phoned Mohammed bin Salman, with Downing Street saying the two men will meet at the earliest opportunity - Romilly Weeks reports
Rishi Sunak hopes to meet Mohammed bin Salman at the “earliest opportunity”, Downing Street said, amid reports of a planned visit to the UK later this year by Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and prime minister.
The two leaders spoke on Thursday, as No 10 faced criticism over a potential visit by the Gulf state leader later this year.
Downing Street said the prime minister told the crown prince that he “looked forward to personally deepening the long-standing ties” between the two countries.
It comes as the Times reported that a visit is planned for this autumn, which would be Mohammed bin Salman’s first trip to Britain since the murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi five years ago.
The Gulf state’s day-to-day leader was accused of ordering the assassination of the Washington Post writer at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, although he denied any involvement and blamed rogue agents.
Western nations have moved to improve relations with the oil-rich state in recent years, with the instability caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine bolstering efforts to develop closer ties.
A Downing Street spokeswoman said Mr Sunak “welcomed the opportunity to speak to the Crown Prince and looked forward to personally deepening the long-standing ties between the UK and Saudi Arabia, as the Kingdom continues to go through a period of profound social and economic transformation under Vision 2030”.
“The prime minister and Crown Prince said they would continue working closely together to progress UK-Saudi co-operation and looked forward to meeting in person at the earliest opportunity.”
No visit has been confirmed by Downing Street and it is not believed that a particular date has been finalised.
However, the Times is the latest newspaper, following the Financial Times in July, to report that an invitation has been issued.
Mr Sunak met the crown prince on the margins of the G20 summit in Bali last November.
In the call on Thursday, the pair discussed the potential to further develop trade and investment ties as well as talking about the ongoing war in Ukraine.
No 10 said that Mr Sunak also “welcomed progress on the conflict in Yemen, where the UK will continue to back efforts to extend the ceasefire and alleviate the humanitarian crisis”.
But the prospect of a visit by the crown prince has prompted criticism and the prime minister has been urged against “rolling out the red carpet” to the leader.
Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesperson Layla Moran saying: “It beggars belief that Rishi Sunak is rolling out the red carpet for Mohammed bin Salman.
“This man – who authorised the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi and presides over a dismal human rights record – should not be receiving a warm welcome from the UK government.
“It sends a signal to MBS (Mohammed bin Salman) that he can continue acting with impunity and we and our allies will do nothing about it.”
Polly Truscott, Amnesty International UK’s foreign policy adviser, echoed those concerns.
“The visit looks set to coincide with the five-year anniversary of Jamal Khashoggi’s sickening assassination and dismemberment at the hands of Saudi agents in Turkey, a crime which has essentially been covered up by the unrepentant Saudi authorities.
“Mohammed bin Salman and his government must be properly held to account for abuses by Saudi officials, including Khashoggi’s murder, the widespread use of torture in Saudi jails, and the indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Yemen,” she said.
Labour’s Angela Rayner called on Rishi Sunak to raise human rights concerns during any visit.
Speaking in Scotland, the party’s deputy leader said: “It’s important as part of that visit that the prime minister speaks to him about the human rights issues where he had real, deep concerns about that but you also have to have dialogue.
“It’s important that while he’s over here that there’s dialogue there and that we do challenge – part of our role internationally is to challenge other nations as well and say ‘look this is not what we accept and this is not how you do things’ and to try and influence in that way.
“If you don’t then you don’t have any influence whatsoever, so I think it’s important that while he’s over here on this visit that the prime minister does have a conversation with him about human rights and how this [the death of Jamal Khashoggi] was completely unacceptable.”
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