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Jim Armitage: We must help new Saudi Arabia emerge from the shadows

JIM ARMITAGE
Evening Standard
Jim Armitage: Mohammed Bin Salman is revolutionising society in Saudi Arabia: AP

Saudi Arabia may leave business leaders feeling queasy over human rights and last year’s purge of the Establishment.

But it is right to engage with the reforming Mohammed Bin Salman. Not just for the reasons put about by the Conservative right, that Brexit means we must take money from anybody.

But because trade is the way to encourage, cajole and bring about further change for the benefit of the Saudi people.

MBS, as he’s known, is already revolutionising his society, with greater rights for women, lifting curbs on music and cinema and diversifying the economy away from oil.

He’s doing this because, like tens of thousands of Saudis who have studied here in London, he is young and engaged with the west. The more UK businesses go to the Kingdom and employ local staff, the greater that engagement will become and the more pressure he can exert on conservatives in the Saudi royal family to reform.

Diplomats and politicians have always seemed to focus on defence when it comes to Saudi trade, loving the vast individual contracts it brings. But in the new Saudi, it is softer industries that the country needs just as much: education and training, financial services, technology, healthcare, leisure. Britain is a world leader in all of those. We can help and profit.

MBS needs to be shown that the West appreciates what he’s trying to achieve, and encourages him to go further.

If we drew in our economic horns in horror that he’s not gone far enough on human rights, or done the right thing in Yemen, we will merely worsen the economy of an already-troubled ally in the most unstable part of the world.

Nobody benefits from that, except the nihilistic fundamentalists who wish us harm.

Why no Lloyds divi?

Credit where credit’s due. Antonio Horta-Osorio has turned the once-crippled Lloyds supertanker around. So much so that he can now afford to sling £1 billion of its spare cash at shareholders.

It’s a shame, though, that he has decided on a share buyback rather than a special dividend.

He argues it is more tax efficient and should push up the share price as there are fewer in issue but, as ever with buybacks, that’s all rather esoteric for the average punter. I’m sure they’d rather just get a nice big cheque.

They also deserve to know how much UBS is coining in fees for today’s buyback programme.

Lloyds has to pay more attention to its retail shareholders than most; it’s got 2.3 million of them. And after all they’ve been through in the past 10 years, they deserve a little TLC.

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