UK ministers visit Saudi Arabia to boost trade ties amid ‘lethal force’ reports

Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden will lead a 450-strong delegation of British businesses as he visits the Gulf state.

Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden
Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden (Yui Mok/PA)

UK Cabinet ministers are visiting Saudi Arabia in a bid to bolster trade links with the kingdom amid reports that Riyadh authorised the use of lethal force to clear land for a new desert city.

Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden, Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch and Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer will be in the Gulf state for a two-day summit aimed at promoting economic ties.

Mr Dowden lead a 450-strong delegation of British businesses including HSBC and British Airways at the event.

Downing Street defended the visit on Monday after the BBC reported claims last week that Saudi forces had been permitted to use deadly force to clear land for a multibillion-pound desert city being built by dozens of western companies.

(Alamy Stock Photo)

Villagers were reportedly evicted to make way for The Line, a 105-mile-long metropolis in the kingdom’s eco-region of Neom, with one person subsequently shot and killed for protesting, according to the broadcaster.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s official spokesman said the UK has “a vital national security and economic security relationship with Saudia Arabia” but “no aspect of that relationship prevents us from speaking frankly about human rights”.

Asked by journalists whether the trip was appropriate in light of the claims and whether the reports would be raised with counterparts, he said UK ministers “regularly raise concerns with Saudi counterparts as necessary” and that the Government would “continue to monitor” the reports.

“Particularly obviously given current events in the Middle East, it is a very important relationship (between the UK and Saudia Arabia),” the official said.

The event this week, dubbed Great Futures, is aimed at promoting British business interests in Riyadh’s Vision 2030 strategy, which includes Neom and is designed to diversify the country’s economy away from oil.

Dozens of companies from across the world, some of them British, are involved in the construction of the eco-region.

Campaigners have criticised the visit against the backdrop of a poor human rights record in Saudia Arabia and called on the UK delegation to push for an independent investigation into the circumstances of the reported killing.

Amnesty International warned that businesses have a responsibility to assess the risks before operating in Saudi Arabia, saying: “The reality behind such futuristic projects is the brutal repression of citizens and residents.”

After virtual remarks at the summit from Mr Sunak and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, Mr Dowden will say: “Our collaboration has enabled an exponential increase in our mutual prosperity and demonstrated that our modern, forward-looking partnership can meet the challenges of the 21st century.”

Saudi Arabia has also been working alongside other countries to contain the Gaza war and avoid a spiralling regional conflict that could derail its economic reform agenda.

Mr Dowden praised the “extraordinary transformation being accomplished across economic and social domains” as he announced London and Riyadh will also establish a new joint taskforce to encourage further co-operation in higher education.

He will use the trip to say Britain stands to benefit from a further £3 billion of investment from Saudi Arabia, helping to sustain around 2,000 jobs in the North East.

The visit comes as the UK and the Gulf Co-operation Council, which includes Riyadh, launch the seventh round of negotiations on a trade deal which the  Government says could add £1.6 billion to the British economy.

Before the summit, Mr Dowden said: “Great Futures will be an important moment for British business. We’re opening up our markets to one another so that investment, exports, tourism and collaboration flows in both directions. Britain doesn’t just endorse Vision 2030, we want to be a part of it.”