UK Seeks Closer Saudi Ties With 450-Strong Delegation

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(Bloomberg) -- The UK and Saudi Arabia hosted a joint summit in Riyadh on Tuesday, aimed at boosting economic ties between the two countries as negotiations continue over a broader trade deal between Britain and the Gulf states.

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Executives from firms including HSBC Holdings Plc and British Airways Plc are among more than 450 British business people attending the 2-day summit, the government said in a statement, describing it as the largest business delegation in more than a decade.

“We’re opening up our markets to one another, so that investment, exports, tourism and collaboration flows in both directions,” Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden said, citing the UK’s support for Saudi Arabia’s ‘Vision 2030’, the country’s plan to diversify away from oil. “Britain doesn’t just endorse Vision 2030, we want to be a part of it.”

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The UK is seeking to leverage its relationship with Saudi Arabia to win business for UK companies in the kingdom, while also attracting investment back in Britain. A particular focus in recent months has been in the field of artificial intelligence, with the UK inviting Saudi officials to participate in a global AI summit hosted by Sunak last year.

Britain is also hoping to capitalize on Saudi Arabia’s economic diversification plans in areas such as financial services, tourism and higher education, where the UK has expertise. The kingdom is working to build itself into a new hub for entertainment, sports, culture and manufacturing as it seeks to boost contributions of the non-oil economy.

Saudi Arabia, for its part, is hoping more UK companies will apply for licenses to do business in the country and wants to see them setting up more regional headquarters in Riyadh.

Under new rules that took effect this year, firms must have a regional base in Saudi Arabia or risk losing business with the kingdom’s vast network of government entities, including its sovereign wealth fund that has almost $1 trillion in assets.

Some 52 licenses for regional headquarters have already been granted to British businesses, out of more than 400 across the program, Khalid Al-Falih, Saudi Arabia’s Investment Minister, said at the event. Additionally, more than 1,000 UK investors are approved to do business in the kingdom. Another 150 applied for approval in the first three months of 2024, he said.

Dowden described the Great Futures event, as it’s called, as the “kickoff” to a deeper relationship with Saudi Arabia. Some 70% of delegates were only visiting the kingdom for the first time, he said, suggesting the forum was more of a meet-and-greet to start laying the groundwork for future deals.

When asked what he’d say to British voters concerned with Saudi Arabia’s history of human rights violations, Dowden said “of course we discuss those things but also what we discuss are the huge opportunities and the huge agenda for prosperity.”

The summit comes against the backdrop of ongoing talks between the UK and the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council over a trade deal. The GCC was equivalent to the UK’s 7th largest export market in 2022 and total trade was worth £61 billion ($77 billion), according to figures from the British government.

(Updates with comments from Dowden starting in ninth paragraph)

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