Saudi Arabia’s crown prince wants to persuade his British and US allies that ‘shock’ reforms have made his country a better place to invest and a more tolerant society on his first foreign tour as heir apparent.
But it could be a tough sell.
Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who starts talks in London on Wednesday, has won Western plaudits for seeking to reduce Saudi Arabia’s reliance on oil, tackle chronic corruption and transform the deeply conservative, mainly Sunni Muslim kingdom.
But the severity and secrecy of an anti-corruption crackdown last November, after Prince Mohammed ousted an older cousin as crown prince in a palace coup last June, has unnerved some investors.
Though London and New York are rivals to host the partial public listing of state oil firm Saudi Aramco, the enthusiasm of some Western business leaders — even for such an important contract — has been sapped by concerns about human rights and a lack of limitations on executive power in Saudi Arabia.
“Investors are intrigued by MbS’s (Prince Mohammed’s) reform projects, and there will be a huge amount of interest in hearing his views, but uncertainty lingers,” said Jane Kinninmont, a Middle East expert at Chatham House think tank.
Rachel Reeves, head of an influential business committee in British parliament, warned against risking London’s reputation as a finance center by watering down corporate governance rules to secure the Aramco listing. This, she said, could “ultimately damage our attractiveness to foreign investment.”
Prince Mohammed has defended last November’s crackdown, in which dozens of top business leaders and princes were detained, as necessary to combat “the cancer of corruption.”
Most detainees have now been released, and the authorities say they have arranged to seize more than $100 billion in assets.