UK’s Sunak, Saudi Crown Prince to meet ‘at the earliest opportunity’

LONDON (Reuters) -British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman discussed meeting in person as soon as possible during a call on Thursday as Western countries court the major oil-producing state.

British opposition politicians and human rights groups have criticised Sunak’s plans to meet a man whom Western leaders believe ordered the murder in 2018 of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

“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,” Sunak’s office said in a statement after the call.

British media have reported Sunak has invited the crown prince to Britain. A British government official said there were currently no dates in the diary for the leaders to meet.

Britain and other European countries are looking to diversify their sources of energy following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and would like to capitalise on Saudi Arabia’s investment fund to diversify its economy away from oil.

The killing of Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018 sparked an international outrage. U.S. intelligence concluded the crown prince had directly approved the murder of the Washington Post columnist, but he has denied any role in the killing.

The opposition Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesperson, Layla Moran, said it “beggars belief” that Sunak “is rolling out the red carpet for Mohammed Bin Salman”.

Last year, then prime minister Boris Johnson held talks with the crown prince in Riyadh. He has not visited Britain since March 2018, before Khashoggi’s murder.

(Reporting by William James and Andrew MacAskill, Editing by Kylie MacLellan)