Salman is coming to Britain, which means British values are the least of May’s concerns
May has three priority agenda items and of them, Brexit is foremost. Her focus is on persuading the Saudis that Britain can still be an important trading, investment and business partner after it leaves the EU. A bilateral trade pact must be near the top of Liam Fox’s things-to-do list after March next year. Before then, a key test of this post-Brexit ambition will be whether the Saudis choose the City of London over New York, Tokyo and Hong Kong for the flotation of Aramco, the state-owned oil company – potentially the most valuable IPO in history. A decision is said to be imminent. “British values” have nothing to do with it.
Second, May and her ministers are keen to maintain and expand the UK security, defence and counter-terrorism relationship. David Cameron once claimed Saudi intelligence averted terrorist attacks in Britain, and the Saudi alliance is highly valued in the fight against Islamic State, al-Qaida and other jihadist groups. Ignoring evidence that Saudi Sunni Wahhabism has played a key role in encouraging anti-western extremism, Saudi Arabia is officially viewed as Islam’s leading light.
This unhealthily irrational bias is deepening. In a policy shift led by Boris Johnson, who reportedly fancies himself as one of Salman’s best buddies, Britain is increasingly aligning itself with the hard US-Saudi line on Iran, Riyadh’s regional foe. The Foreign Office currently backs the west’s 2015 nuclear accord with Tehran, which the Saudis and Donald Trump deplore, and has worked hard in recent years to normalise relations.