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Kingdoms hope to usher in a new era of UK-Saudi trade

A change of UK government should not affect a flourishing relationship

UK deputy prime minister Oliver Dowden and Saudi Arabia's minister of commerce Dr. Majid bin Abdullah Al-Qasabi at the Great Futures conference in Riyadh SPA
UK deputy prime minister Oliver Dowden and Saudi Arabia's minister of commerce Dr. Majid bin Abdullah Al-Qasabi at the Great Futures conference in Riyadh

The two kingdoms of Saudi Arabia and the UK share a common history and a genuine friendship forged particularly during the past century.  

It was to London that King Abdulaziz, better known in the UK as Ibn Saud sent 14-year-old Prince Faisal to petition King George V, Lord Curzon and Winston Churchill to recognise the new Saudi state in 1919.

Over 100 years later, British Airways, part of IAG Group, announced last week that it will resume flights between London and the Red Sea port of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s second city. The airline already flies daily to the capital Riyadh.

The Jeddah flights, which were stopped in 2019, will run four times weekly and are part of the airline’s focus on the leisure sector and a $7 billion revamp of planes, apps and customer experience, BA’s chief commercial officer Colm Lacy said in Riyadh.

BA was in Saudi Arabia as co-sponsors of the biggest UK trade mission in ten years. Branded “Great Futures” and organised under the UK’s “Great” trade promotion campaign, a high-level delegation of ministers and business leaders took part in two days of presentations, networking and dinners.

The airline had reportedly paid £500,000 to sponsor the trade mission and laid on a plane to ferry delegates from London. 

Other sponsors included HSBC and drinks company Diageo, who served up alcohol-free Guinness and G&Ts for delegates. 

The UK fielded a strong line-up of ministers: the ebullient Lord Dominic Johnson, investment minister, alongside deputy prime minister Oliver Dowden, secretary of state for business and trade Kemi Badenoch, secretary of state for culture Lucy Frazer, and others.

The UK had initially pushed for the mission to take place at the same time as the Leap tech conference in March but it was moved to allow for logistics and Saudi Arabian senior participation.

As a result delegates were given rather short notice. This may have explained the absence of big names such as Lord Sugar, Sir James Dyson and Sir Jim Radcliffe or many CEOs of FTSE-100 companies.

However, since Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund purchased Newcastle United FC in 2021, the city and its club have been embraced by the football-mad Saudis.

Seizing the opportunity to leverage the football connection to support investment in the region were Newcastle’s universities, businesses and film industry.

Sarah Greene, the CEO of Newcastle’s economic development agency, chaired a lively panel on forging education, sporting, cultural and business links.

The Great Futures conference took place at the King Abdullah Financial District in RiyadhSPA
The Great Futures conference took place at the King Abdullah Financial District in Riyadh

Dowden announced a 12-month programme of UK-Saudi engagement on trade, supported by sector-by-sector working groups.

Trade between Saudi Arabia and the UK is currently over £17 billion and the two kingdoms have agreed to target £30 billion by 2030.

The bottom line is that this is all about making things happen that will create jobs and wealth. 

The UK offers skills, creativity and energy, and is a world leader in finance and professional services. With Saudi Arabia’s national transformation in full swing this relationship has every potential to flourish for the benefit of both countries.

As the UK is about to go through a general election and likely change of government, it will be interesting to see how this renewed enthusiasm for economic relations evolves.

Noises coming from the predicted incoming Labour administration indicate a “steady as she goes” approach. It is to be hoped that Great Futures will endure and prosper whatever the political weather. 

The hard work begins when trade missions such as these are over and done with. It is now up to the incoming UK political leadership, diplomats, officials, business owners large and small, Anglophile Saudis and the 30,000 Brits living and working in Saudi Arabia to make things happen.  

Justin Doherty is chairman of Hemington Consulting and has advised companies, governments and charities on influence campaigns and reputation risk management

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