If Theresa May says Saudi Arabia must reform, then we can rest assured it will

Mark Steel
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince meets the Prime Minister in Downing Street: AFP/Getty

What an inspiring gesture for International Women’s Day, for the government to invite feminist icon Mohammad “Pankhurst” bin Salman, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, to meet the Queen, and anyone important, in London for a few days.

Because if anything, Saudi Arabia is TOO feminist. Traditionally it’s been the only country so liberal, that women face no extra penalty for drinking and driving. Because they could be jailed for doing either, so they might as well do both at the same time.

And women can wear T-shirts that say: “This is what a feminist looks like”, without provoking any comment, no matter where they are. This is because they have to be covered up so no one would see it (at least for now); but even so, it’s a sign of how liberal the country has become.

Indeed, Saudi women are less likely to be harassed around town than women here, because for the most part they still can’t yet go on public transport without permission from their official “guardian”, who must be a man.

The British Government insists the position of women in Saudi Arabia is changing, which is one reason we should welcome the Crown Prince. And to be fair, it IS changing. In 2015 the World Economic Forum listed Saudi Arabia as 134 out of 145 for “gender parity”, but in 2016 this had been redressed, and they were down to 141. If they carry on improving like that, in a few years they’ll end up in a “women’s equality” play-off with Ancient Greece. Then they can go on to a grand final with a pride of lions.

Mind you, they were back up to 138 last year, so maybe all’s not lost – and a lot has happened in the last few months.

For instance, one way in which they are reforming is that, for the first time, women have been allowed to enter sports stadiums. Well I’m all for women’s equality, but the pendulum’s swung too far the other way once they’re allowed into stadiums.

But this is how rapidly their society is changing. Within five years they’ll be allowed to dunk a biscuit without written permission, or receive only a mild electric shock for sneezing without warning their husband.

So it’s right that the Crown Prince and his entourage are shown round Buckingham Palace and bowed to and offered presents and photographed with the Cabinet, because they’re role models for us all.

They’re so modernising, they still have Raif Badawi in jail, having given him 50 lashes for criticising the regime in his blog. This illustrates how determined they are to be modern, as the lashings must be for using outdated software. “From now on you will criticise us by using Google Keyword Planner to amplify content strategy,” they must say while thrashing him.

Or there’s Dawood al Marhoon, arrested in 2012 for allegedly taking part in an anti-government protest, and at the trial the prosecution demanded a sentence of crucifixion. See, it’s modernise modernise modernise: the Crown Prince is determined to drag Saudi Arabia into the first century.

It’s also claimed he’s eager to make his country more democratic. And who could you trust more to make sure power is shared democratically, than Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman al Saud, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, President of Economic Affairs and Minister of Defence, heir apparent to the throne, appointed by his father, the King, who himself had to work his way up, having started out as a humble prince.

The affection in which he’s held is clear from the spontaneous love shown to him in advance of his visit. Along the M4, on the route he’d take from the airport, were billboards showing a giant picture of the Crown Prince, saying “Bringing change to Saudi Arabia”.

These were paid for by a PR company set up specially by the Saudi regime, and there can be few healthier signs of a contented society, than when its Crown Prince pays for massive pictures of himself to greet himself wherever he goes. It must be hard to stay humble and connected to the people, when you’re that adored. “Ooh,” I suppose he said sheepishly in his motorcade, “there’s another picture of me. Oh I shouldn’t have gone to that much trouble, I’m too kind.”

The visit was all too short, because on top of these issues the Saudi government is also bombing Yemen, in ways the United Nations have suggested may be war crimes.

So it’s only right they’re shown such hospitality, because the best way of persuading someone to refrain from brutal war and flogging critics is to invite them to meet the Queen.

For example, Theresa May said the last time she met the Crown Prince: “I raised with him them the need to open the port of Hodeidah to humanitarian supplies. I’m pleased to say Saudi Arabia then did just that. This vindicates the engagement that we have with Saudi Arabia.”

So the Saudis opened the port, because Theresa May suggested it. She’s far more powerful than she lets on. She just says it and they do it. One day, when she’s not so busy, she’ll raise with the Prince the need to allow all women to travel without permission from her husband, or to let someone write a blog without getting lashed, and I’m sure they’ll do just that as well.

This is why, when Conservatives and their supporters hear that 20 years ago Jeremy Corbyn met someone from an organisation they disagree with, they get very angry with him. They’re furious that instead of speaking in the same room as them and saying “hello”, he should have taken them to meet the Queen and Prince Charles and spend all day with the cabinet and sold them billions of pounds worth of weapons. It’s no wonder they don’t trust him.