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UK delegation to Saudi Arabia discuss Vision 2030 plans to modernise and diversify the country

A BGIPU delegation visited Saudi Arabia from 24 to 30 September, the first visit of this kind in several years. The delegation was led by Mark Menzies MP, with Matthew Offord MP, Wayne David MP, Shailesh Vara MP, Baroness Hooper and Baroness Northover. Saudi Arabia is a country at a key point in its history, deeply conservative on the one hand, but with a young and vibrant population who want to balance their heritage and traditions while making the most of the modern world.

It is a country which many hold strong opinions on, although few have visited. This was therefore a hugely important opportunity for Parliamentarians to learn first-hand about a country that remains a key partner and help deepen these ties. Having visited on three prior occasions, although not in the previous six years, and I was eagerly anticipating the chance to witness the changes that have taken place in the Kingdom since.

We started the week with a visit to the British Embassy, where we were welcomed by His Majesty’s Ambassador Neil Crompton, who gave us an overview of these developments.  From there, it was onto the Shura Council where we were hosted by the Speaker of the Shura. Then the UK-KSA Friendship Committee gave us a tour of the buildings and we had a discussion with our Saudi colleagues that offered an insight into how they work to scrutinise the Government in their Parliamentary system.

The central theme of our visit was Vision 2030, a plan to diversify and modernise the Saudi economy, which was mentioned at nearly every meeting and even by those we met in the street. While we visited the ARAMCO facility at the Shaybah Oil Field, the Crown Prince’s aim is to end the predominance of petrochemicals, growing the country’s tourist, cultural and wider business sectors.

The centre for this is Riyadh, a city that has already grown rapidly in recent decades, with a population of over 7.5 million, it is now undergoing a dramatic regeneration. We learned about how tree planting is being used with the aim of reducing the daytime temperature in the city by 2 degrees. More complex engineering projects are also underway, such as the delivery of a new metro system and countless eye-catching new buildings, with British architectural firm Zaha Hadid playing a key role in many of these projects.

In Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s second city, a visit to the Shoaiba Power and Desalination plant gave a chance to see how one of the driest countries on earth is dealing with the twin challenges of climate change and a growing population. Already the world’s most energy efficient desalination plant, Shoaiba is also one of the largest, desalinating 11.5 million m3 water each year. The focus is now on cost reduction, enabling these technologies to be used around the world, particularly in countries without Saudi Arabia’s financial resources.

But perhaps the most well-known of the Vision 2030 projects is the new city of Neom. Still under construction, the Neom Exhibition provided an insight into what life will look like for the millions of people intended to be housed in an ultra-modern linear city stretching over 100 miles across the desert known as The Line.

A personal highlight was our visit to Al Ula, an ancient city and archaeological site set against a backdrop of stunning wadis and rock formations. The recently built hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues are an example of the country’s efforts to expand its tourist industry, which has historically relied on religious tourism and pilgrims to the holy cities.

Saudi Arabia is at the centre of a deeply complicated region, where relations between, and indeed within countries, can be fraught. These tensions have sadly all too often spilled over into violence and all our war, with Yemen being the most prominent example of this.

Sport and culture are central parts of the changes sweeping Saudi society. VIA Riyadh, an exclusive shopping and entertainment district, gave an insight into this but, beyond the luxury stores, the most telling indication of these reforms was the cinema, with the previous ban on the public screening of films having ended in 2018.

For British readers, the growth of the Saudi Pro League, which has seen massive investment and headline signings from Europe’s top clubs will be the most obvious example of Saudi Arabia’s cultural changes. This is being matched by an emphasis on getting young people physically active, particularly in schools, as well as developing elite level youth talent at place like the Mahd Academy. With over one in three Saudis aged 5-19 considered obese, this is hugely important but is also demonstrative of the country’s desire to become a sporting power, with inspiration taken from the United Kingdom’s upturn in Olympic performance following the 1996 Olympics.

The Saudi Ambassador to Yemen gave us an overview of the conflict’s origins and development. The UK Government supported Saudi Arabia’s right to defend itself from missile attack but also sought to emphasise the need to minimise the humanitarian cost of the war. Relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran normalised earlier this year, paving the way for a dialling down in the conflict and, although the civil war continues, we learned about how the humanitarian effort has been stepped up. Saudi Arabia’s Development & Reconstruction Programme for Yemen is one example of this.

One of the greatest controversies regarding Saudi Arabia is around their legal justice system.  The death penalty remains a part of the Saudi legal system, a source of controversy around the world and while the UK Government and I would prefer to see no country using the death penalty, the Deputy Minister for Justice was keen to stress the thorough process that must be undertaken. On this topic, we also met with the Saudi Human Rights Commission, an advisory body whose members are appointed by the King. We discussed the ways in which they can advise for reforms and follow up with their implementation.

I am incredibly grateful to Shura Council Members, particularly Dr Abdullah and the other members of the UK-KSA Friendship Committee, who gave us such a warm welcome. The delegation could also not have taken place without the support of HM Ambassador Neil Crompton and his Embassy team, as well as Mathilde Ollivo who organised the delegation and accompanied us along with BGIPU Director Rick Nimmo.

Mark Menzies MP