Boris Johnson meets with MbS to plea for oil price relief

Boris Johnson meets with MbS to plea for oil price relief
4 min read
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has arrived in Saudi Arabia and been greeted by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, with whom he will discuss oil production and human rights in the country.
Boris Johnson said he would raise human rights with the Saudi crown prince [Getty]

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrived in oil giant Saudi Arabia on Wednesday to lobby for higher production after Russia's invasion of Ukraine sent markets into turmoil.

Johnson, one of the few Western leaders to visit Riyadh since the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, touched down after talks with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed in the United Arab Emirates, another oil-rich Gulf state.

The UK leader is attempting to rein in oil prices, which soared to nearly $140 a barrel before dropping below $100, and help end the West's dependency on Russian oil following the invasion of Ukraine.

His visit coincides with fresh condemnation of Saudi Arabia's human rights record after 81 people were put to death in a mass execution on Saturday. Rights groups questioned whether they had received fair trials.

Also in the region, British-Iranians Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori were released after years in detention in Iran on charges of plotting to overthrow the government and spying for Israel, respectively.

The families of both believe they were being held as political prisoners until the UK settled a £400-million debt for defence equipment dating back to the time of the Shah of Iran.

Johnson was scheduled to meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto Saudi leader, after discussing "the stability of the global oil markets" with Emirati royal Sheikh Mohammed, according to the UAE's official WAM news agency.

"The leaders welcomed the long-standing partnership between our two countries and discussed opportunities to increase collaboration between the UK and UAE on energy security, green technology, and trade," a Downing Street spokesperson said in London.


Before leaving for Riyadh, Johnson promised to raise human rights issues with Prince Mohammed, but also stressed Britain's "very important relationship" with the oil-rich Gulf.

"It's not just a question of looking at the OPEC countries and what they can do to increase supply, though that is important," Johnson told British media.

"When we look at the dependency the West in particular has built up on Putin's hydrocarbons, on Putin's oil and gas, we can see what a mistake that was because he's been able to blackmail the West."

'Putin's addiction'

Johnson's spokesman said the prime minister would also ask Prince Mohammed to condemn Russia's President Vladimir Putin over the assault on Ukraine. 

Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which are two of the world's biggest oil exporters and both have ties to Moscow, have so far avoided taking a position against Russia.

But Johnson said before leaving that the impact of Putin's "brutal and unprovoked" assault will be felt far beyond Europe.

He said that as Western sanctions begin to bite, a new international coalition was needed to offset their impact on consumers already feeling the pinch from rising inflation.

"The world must wean itself off Russian hydrocarbons and starve Putin's addiction to oil and gas," he said in a statement.

"Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are key international partners in that effort."

The UAE and Saudi Arabia are the UK's two largest economic partners in the region, with bilateral trade worth £12.2 billion ($15.9 billion, 14.5 billion euros) and £10.4 billion respectively in 2020, Johnson's office said.

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Russia is the world's largest producer of gas and one of the biggest oil producers.

Like the United States, Britain plans to phase out Russian oil imports by the end of the year, as part of wide-ranging sanctions targeting Russian businesses and billionaires.

US President Joe Biden and Prince Mohammed haven't spoken since Biden took office and vowed to treat the kingdom as a "pariah" state over Khashoggi's killing, which the CIA blamed on the Saudi royal. 

Torbjorn Soltvedt, Middle East and North Africa analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, said that "without this rift, it is unlikely Johnson would now be spearheading oil diplomacy efforts in the Gulf".

He said the odds were "stacked against Johnson" in changing Saudi oil policy, but that the UAE "may be more willing to open the taps" as it wants to capitalise on its oil reserves more quickly.

But the UAE on 10 March reaffirmed its commitment to OPEC+ alliance agreements to stick to existing output targets through April.