Queen Elizabeth and U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May both welcomed Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman on March 7, while small crowds of angry citizens protested against his visit. The prince and presumed next leader of Saudi Arabia is on a three-day visit focused on improving trade and defense relations, supported by an advertising blitz across multiple media.
The visit faced criticism from those who disapprove of Saudi Arabia’s undemocratic government, and the country’s war in neighboring Yemen, which has claimed roughly 9,000 lives – the majority civilians.
A wide-ranging advertising campaign in newspapers, websites and billboards has stressed the positive aspects of the Prince and the Kingdom (Washington Post).
Roughly 200 anti-war activists protested on the opposite side of Downing Street, chanting “hands off Yemen” . While the face of the Saudi prince was on several picket signs, the focus of the protest was more on the UK’s support of his government.
“We’re here because Theresa May has invited the horrible dictator from Saudi Arabia … probably to organize a few more arms deals,” said Mayer Wakefield, an organizer with Stop The War, an anti-war group that helped orchestrate the event.
Saudi Arabia has bombed Yemen for more than four years in attempts to squash Houthi rebels, a Shiite group with ties to Iran. Almost £4 billion (US$5.2bn) worth of the weapons were purchased from British defense manufacturers (The Guardian).
Yet public awareness of this is low. An (unscientific) YouGov poll, reported by the Independent, found that 49 percent of UK respondents were unaware of the conflict in Yemen, let alone the involvement of UK weapons.
“Brexit dominates almost every news outlet… it’s a huge distraction,” Andy Slaughter, Labour MP for Hammersmith, told WikiTribune, .
“But there is a link with [Brexit and] Saudi… we’re much less critical of regimes with bad human rights records because we’re going to need to increasingly rely on these regimes for trade because we’re pulling out of the EU.”
Slaughter was one of at least three Labour MPs at the protest. Each pledged to change the relationship with the Saudi kingdom if Labour wins power.
The role of the Houthis in the Yemen war, and their Iranian backers, was largely absent from the demonstration. While Iran denies arming the rebel group, Reuters reported in March 2017 that the Shiite power covertly shipped ballistic missiles and other military supplies to Yemen, sometimes through third-party countries. U.S. President Donald J. Trump has cited Tehran’s involvement in Yemen as a reason why he wants to abandon the Iran nuclear deal despite its strong support with European and Asian allies.
“There are atrocities going on both sides of the Saudi war, we have a particular role to promote peace there… not to just sell arms to one side,” said MP Slaughter when asked about Houthis.
Pro-Saudi counter protest
A few dozen meters away, fewer than 30 protesters held a separate protest with a completely different message. The all-male crowd stood in solidarity with Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
Each protestor claimed to be from Yemen, though nearly all of them refused to speak to WikiTribune. One man, who called himself Salem Ali, agreed to speak on the record.
“We’re here to welcome him … he’s done a lot for us,” said Ali in front of a sign of the Saudi leader.
While Ali defended Prince bin Salman, his passion would be better described as anti-Houthi, a group that he blames for destroying the security apparatus of his home country. He regards the anti-Prince demonstrators as “confused”.
“They haven’t been hurt like us, they haven’t lost friends, neighbors and family,” said Ali, gesturing towards the stage and leading another round of “Hands off Yemen” chanting.