Press play to listen to this article
LONDON — One is a former journalist leading 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. Yet there’s a bizarre bromance going on between Boris Johnson and Mohammed bin Salman.
This week, Johnson headed to Saudi Arabia to beg the Gulf state to pump more oil in a bid to plug the looming gap caused by a Western reduction in Russian fuel imports. London, Washington and the European Union all announced plans to reduce imports of Russian energy to pile pressure on Vladimir Putin after his invasion of Ukraine.
But for Johnson, dealing with the crown prince — known as MBS — might be more pleasure than business. “The chemistry between them just works,” said Eddie Lister, a former long-serving aide to Johnson who himself dealt with the Gulf nations while working in Downing Street and has just become an unpaid non-executive director of the Saudi British Joint Business Council.
The two leaders have a good laugh when chatting and like each other a lot, Lister said. “It’s nothing more than that; there’s nothing magical,” he added. “They just seem to hit it off.”
On his trip, Johnson spoke with MBS and Mohamed bin Zayed, the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates, in a bid to persuade OPEC nations to increase oil production and tackle rising global fuel prices.
The one-on-one portion of his meeting with MBS was meant to last 20 minutes, but the two ended up talking for an hour and a half, according to a senior government official.
During a phone call some weeks ago, the pair sounded more like a pair of budding lovers than international statesmen. “I miss you,” one quipped. “I miss you more,” the other replied, according to the official.
Johnson’s aides say he gets on well with most foreign leaders due to his warm approach. “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 — which has long helped endear him to foreign counterparts.
“His knowledge … is an asset and he’s respectful of people because he knows their history and their culture,” said the same government official quoted above. “That matters even more in that part of the world because they come across so many leaders who are utterly ignorant and offensive about it.”
Whether Johnson can convince the Gulf states to produce more oil, however, is another question.
Rights and wrongs
Dealing with states like Saudi Arabia requires a certain amount of nose-holding for most Western leaders. MBS had 81 people executed not long before Johnson landed on Saudi soil, and a further three while the British PM was there.
U.S. President Joe Biden cut ties with MBS in response to the murder of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi government officials — a killing widely thought to have been ordered by the crown prince himself.
Women in the kingdom are still treated as second-class citizens, although MBS has brought in some reforms that have allowed women into entertainment venues and to drive.
Lister argued the changes might seem like small steps to Western observers, but are welcomed in Downing Street and should be backed. “It’s very hard to completely reform a very conservative country, which Saudi Arabia is,” he argued. “It’s not easy and MBS is taking enormous risks and it’s right that we should support him.”
Others are less eager to praise the progress — and note that MBS is more hard line when it comes to persecuting his opponents than his predecessors were. “There’s been a two-steps-forward, one-step-back reform process in the kingdom,” said Sanam Vakil, deputy director of the Middle East-North Africa Programme at Chatham House.
The U.K. insists it brings up human rights each time it talks to Saudi Arabia or other hard-line states. Johnson did so again after meeting MBS this week.
But some in government see double standards. “It’s a matter of degree, because the Americans execute an awful lot of people,” the same senior government official said. However, the U.S. legal regime is independent of government and transparent, and capital punishment is in most cases a state-level decision.
‘Can’t afford to ignore Saudi’
Despite mentioning human rights and condemning the Khashoggi murder at the time, the U.K. has maintained its close relationship with Saudi Arabia.
Britain exports billions of pounds in weapons to the country and receives billions of pounds in foreign investment in return, and the two sides exchange crucial defense intelligence. The West is also reliant on Saudi Arabia as the biggest crude oil exporter in the world.
“At a time like this, I’m afraid we’re going to have to go to places that are uncomfortable for us and for our partners, because the greater evil is Vladimir Putin,” said former Middle East minister Andrew Murrison. “It is certainly the case that the U.K. has a deep and long-standing relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which does not mean to say we are a cheerleader for that country. But we operate in a pragmatic space and traditionally have avoided standoffs.”
Others are more frank in their assessment. “Saudi Arabia is an opportunity for British businesses, so the government would justify that engagement any way they would like to see it,” said Vakil from Chatham House.
Indeed, the U.K. is also eager for a free-trade deal with the Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes Saudi Arabia and other human rights-abusing states. “We knew dealing with Saudi Arabia and some of the other Gulf nations would be a PR nightmare,” said one former trade department official. “I don’t think there will be too much shouting about it while negotiations are ongoing.”
But the government is clear about the realpolitik involved. “In the case of Saudi Arabia, it’s not sucking up to somebody you can afford to ignore,” the senior government official said. “This is the largest producer of crude oil in the world.”
Despite his charm, Johnson is notorious for pursuing transactional relationships. “He doesn’t really make friends. He only has interests,” his biographer Sonia Purnell explained. “I’m sure he has the macho swagger beloved of authoritarian leaders the world over. I’m sure that 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 refusal of the U.S. president to engage with the crown prince directly, and the Saudi leader’s rejection of 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 be “acting as messenger, as an envoy on behalf of the Americans in order to convince Muhammed bin Salman to increase oil production to calm down the prices.”
“Boris can speak to the Gulf nations without them feeling that he’s preaching to them like Biden does,” said a serving government minister. “After the withdrawal from Afghanistan too, all of the eastern Gulf is seeing the U.S. as less and less of a reliable partner. So Boris taking the mantle could be seen as ‘global Britain’ in action.”
Those in government argue the U.K. is an important member of numerous 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 U.S.
But as in all transactional relationships, the other side needs something from the bargain too.
“I don’t think Boris Johnson exercises influence on Muhammed bin Salman. In fact, I think it is the other way around: Saudi Arabia holds its allies hostage,” said al-Rasheed. “He knows the U.S. and the U.K. are in desperate need for his oil at the moment, therefore he is going to maximize his profit.”
Al-Rasheed argued MBS is interested in getting weapons from Washington and Britain and nothing else — as weapons “guarantee the security of the throne.”
Others argue the transaction is not overt. Johnson did not go in asking outright for more oil when he met with MBS, and his counterpart did not ask for things in return. The discussion was said to be more implied than overt. There has been no suggestion of a deal since, either.
“Their whole culture is about avoiding that transactional approach that dominates a lot of Western culture,” the senior government official said.
Escape from the kingdom
Others argue that Johnson’s Saudi bromance will do little to reduce Western dependence on dirty fuels produced in authoritarian countries.
“Leaning into the old-school politics of energy is not helpful in liberating Britain to do what it wants to do,” said Darren Jones, the Labour chair of the House of Commons business and energy committee. He said moving towards a net-zero future would “put us in a stronger position, both from an energy security perspective, but also from a foreign policy perspective.”
The senior government official argued that “nobody is more enthusiastic than the prime minister to get to a world where we are not at the mercy of the global producers of hydrocarbons. But the reality is we’re not at that point at this moment in time.”
The same person said the choice was either talking to leaders like MBS or having less control over the looming cost-of-living crisis in Britain. “In sha’Allah the price of oil will fall,” they added.