British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak says he hopes to meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “at the earliest opportunity” as a British newspaper reported that officials from both countries hope to schedule a meeting before the end of the year in London.
“The Prime Minister and Crown Prince said they would continue working closely together to progress UK-Saudi cooperation and looked forward to meeting in person at the earliest opportunity,” a statement from Sunak’s office said on Thursday after the two leaders spoke by phone.
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The British leader’s office said the pair discussed developing ties in trade, investment, defence and security. Sunak also reiterated the United Kingdom’s commitment to Saudi and regional security.
Britain temporarily paused granting new arms export licences to Saudi Arabia from June 2019 to July 2020 for goods that could be used in the war in Yemen.
Any official visit could prove controversial among some British politicians and human rights groups that have criticised the Saudi leader over the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in 2018.
The killing of Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, sparked international outrage.
Layla Moran, the foreign affairs spokesperson for Britain’s Liberal Democrats party, said it “beggars belief” that Sunak “is rolling out the red carpet for Mohammed bin Salman”.
British newspaper The Times reported that a visit was expected to take place in the coming months but there was no date.
Britain and other Western countries are aiming to diversify their energy sources after Russia invaded Ukraine last year and aim to capitalise on Saudi Arabia’s plan to invest hundreds of billions of dollars to diversify its economy away from oil.
In November, Sunak met Prince Mohammed on the sidelines of the Group of Twenty summit in Bali to discuss energy markets.
Saudi Arabia has long been criticised over its human rights record and is trying to change its image under a sweeping agenda of social and economic reform called Vision 2030.
The Saudi crown prince has not visited Britain since March 2018 before the murder of Khashoggi.