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LONDON – Einem is a former journalist who runs a liberal democracy. The other is an authoritarian crown prince of an oppressive state that executes people and has zero tolerance for freedom of speech. Still, there is a bizarre bromance between Boris Johnson and Mohammed bin Salman.
This week, Johnson traveled to Saudi Arabia to ask the Gulf state to pump more oil to fill a looming gap caused by a Western cut in Russian fuel imports. London, Washington and the European Union all announced plans to cut Russian energy imports in order to put pressure on Vladimir Putin after his invasion of Ukraine.
But for Johnson, dealing with the crown prince – known as MBS – could be more pleasure than business. “The chemistry between them just works,” said Eddie Lister, a former longtime adviser to Johnson who dealt with the Gulf states himself while working at Downing Street has just become an unpaid non-executive director of the Saudi British Joint Business Council.
The two leaders have a good laugh while chatting and are very fond of each other, Lister said. “It’s nothing more than that; there is nothing magical,” he added. “They just seem to have hit it off.”
During his trip, Johnson spoke with MBS and Mohamed bin Zayed, the UAE’s Crown Prince, to persuade OPEC to increase oil production and address soaring global fuel prices.
The face-to-face portion of his meeting with MBS was supposed to last 20 minutes, but the two talked for an hour and a half, according to a senior government official.
During a phone call a few weeks ago, the couple sounded more like aspiring lovers than an international statesman. “I miss you,” joked one. “I miss you more,” the other replied, according to the officer.
Johnson’s aides say his cordial nature means he gets along well with most foreign leaders. “He’s not stiff and formal,” Lister said.
The British Prime Minister is also well-read, loves languages and has a strong grasp of history – all of which have long endeared him to foreign counterparts.
“His knowledge … is an asset and he respects people because he knows their history and their culture,” said the government official quoted above. “That’s even more important in this part of the world because you meet so many leaders who are completely ignorant and abusive.”
Whether Johnson can convince the Gulf States to produce more oil is another question.
rights and wrongs
Dealing with states like Saudi Arabia requires a degree of nose-holding from most Western leaders. MBS had 81 people executed just before Johnson landed on Saudi soil and another three while the British Prime Minister was there.
US President Joe Biden has severed ties with MBS in response to the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi government officials – a murder thinking far have been appointed by the crown prince himself.
Women in the UK are still treated as second-class citizens, although MBS has introduced some reforms that have allowed women access to entertainment venues and driving.
Lister argued that the changes might seem like small steps to Western observers, but should be welcomed and supported at Downing Street. “It is very difficult to fully reform a very conservative country like Saudi Arabia,” he argued. “It’s not easy and MBS takes huge risks and it’s right that we should support him.”
Others are less anxious to praise the progress – noting that MBS is tougher than its predecessors in pursuing its opponents. “There has been a reform process in the kingdom of two steps forward and one step back,” said Sanam Vakil, deputy director of the Middle East-North Africa program at Chatham House.
The UK insists that every time it speaks to Saudi Arabia or other uncompromising states, it raises human rights. Johnson did so again after meeting MBS this week.
But some in government see double standards. “It’s a matter of degree because Americans execute a lot of people,” said the same senior government official. However, the US legal system is independent of government and transparent, and the death penalty is a state-level decision in most cases.
“Can’t afford to ignore Saudi”
Although the UK mentioned human rights at the time and condemned the killing of Khashoggi, it has maintained close ties with Saudi Arabia.
Britain exports billions of pounds in arms to the country in exchange for billions of pounds in foreign investment, and the two sides share vital defense intelligence. The West also depends on Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest crude oil exporter.
“At a time like this, I fear we have to go places that are uncomfortable for us and our partners, because the greater evil is Vladimir Putin,” said former Middle East Secretary Andrew Murrison. “It is certainly true that the UK has a deep and long-standing relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which does not mean that we are a cheerleader for that country. But we operate in a pragmatic environment and have traditionally avoided deadlocks.”
Others are more open in their assessment. “Saudi Arabia is an opportunity for British companies, so the government would justify this engagement in any way it would like to see it,” Chatham House’s Vakil said.
In fact, the UK is too looking forward to a free trade agreement with the Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes Saudi Arabia and other human rights violating states. “We knew that dealing with Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf countries was going to be a public relations nightmare,” said a former Commerce Department official. “I don’t think there will be too much clamor about it while the negotiations are going on.”
But the government is aware of the realpolitik involved. “In the case of Saudi Arabia, it’s not like currying favor with someone you can ignore,” the senior government official said. “This is the largest crude oil producer in the world.”
Despite his charm, Johnson is notorious for maintaining business connections. “He doesn’t really make friends. He just has interests,” explained his biographer, Sonia Purnell. “I’m sure he has the macho swagger loved by authoritarian leaders around the world. I’m sure he can say the right things that would please them.”
Don’t shoot the messenger
Some believe Johnson has become a middleman between Biden and MBS due to the US president’s refusal to engage directly with the crown prince and rebuffs attempts by the White House to discuss oil production in recent weeks.
Madawi al-Rasheed, an author of several books on Saudi Arabia, said the prime minister could “act as an ambassador, an envoy on behalf of the Americans to persuade Muhammed bin Salman to increase oil production in order to calm prices.” ”
“Boris can speak to the Gulf States without them feeling like he’s preaching to them like Biden,” said an acting government minister. “Even after leaving Afghanistan, the US is viewed less and less as a reliable partner throughout the Eastern Gulf. So Boris taking the mantle could be seen as ‘global Britain’ in action.”
Government officials argue that the UK is a key member of many global bodies, including NATO and the G7. So when Johnson makes appeals to other nations, he does so as a member of powerful groups, not just on behalf of Britain or even the US
But as in all business relationships, the other side needs something from the bargain.
“I don’t think Boris Johnson has any influence on Muhammed bin Salman. In fact, I think it’s the other way around: Saudi Arabia is holding its allies hostage,” al-Rasheed said. “He knows the US and UK are in dire need of his oil right now, so he will maximize his profits.”
Al-Rasheed argued MBS was interested in getting guns from Washington and Britain and nothing else – since guns “guarantee the security of the throne”.
Others argue the transaction is not obvious. Johnson didn’t go straight in and ask for more oil when he met with MBS, and his counterpart didn’t ask for anything in return. The discussion was implicit rather than open. There hasn’t been a deal proposed since then either.
“Their culture as a whole is about avoiding that transactional approach that dominates much of Western culture,” the senior government official said.
escape from the kingdom
Others argue that Johnson’s Saudi bromance will do little to reduce the West’s reliance on dirty fuels produced in authoritarian countries.
“Blinging on old-school energy policies is not helpful in freeing Britain to do what it wants to do,” said Darren Jones, Labor leader of the House of Commons Economic and Energy Committee. He said moving to a net-zero future would “place us in a stronger position, both from an energy security perspective and from a foreign policy perspective.”
The senior government official argued that “no one is more enthusiastic than the prime minister to achieve a world where we are not at the mercy of global hydrocarbon producers. But the reality is we are not there at this point.”
The same person said the choice was either to speak to leaders like MBS or have less control over the UK’s looming cost of living crisis. “In sha’Allah the price of oil will fall,” they added.
https://www.politico.eu/article/bromance-uk-boris-johnson-saudi-arabia-prince-mohammed-bin-salman/?utm_source=RSS_Feed&utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=RSS_Syndication Boris Johnson's Saudi bromance - POLITICO