UK Defence Minister Grant Shapps praises Saudi Arabia's 'women's rights reforms' as London eyes big arms deal
Shapps, who was appointed defence minister in August, has been trying to secure the £5 billion sale of 48 Eurofighter Typhoons to Saudi Arabia.
It is currently being held up by Germany - also a manufacturer of the jet - over human rights concerns, something Shapps appears not to agree with.
"Forget everything you think you know about know about Saudi Arabia," he told a fringe meeting at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester on Sunday, according to The Times.
"Actually, the country is changing incredibly quickly in ways [you] would think have happened over a long time... but the societal changes - women in the workplace at levels that would have been unimaginable three or four years ago. All things you would expect anyway, but what you can't underestimate is the impact that is having on their society and the way they govern."
Despite the social reforms in Saudi Arabia - allowing women to drive, opening cinemas, and curbing the powers of the religious police - Riyadh has been criticised for its continued suppression of free speech and crackdown on activists, including women's rights campaigners.
Manahel al-Otaibi, a 29-year-old fitness instructor and artist, was detained in November 2022 for "indecent dress" although rights groups believe the real reason for her arrest was a tweet critical of the government.
Other rights activists have been given long prison sentences for their social media activity and campaign work.
Loujain Al-Hathloul was detained for 1001 days after being involved in women's rights activism sparking uproar across the world.
Despite the criticism of Riyadh's human rights record and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, the UK has been keen to build closer ties with Saudi Arabia, something Shapps also appeared to acknowledge.
"In international politics, you always have a decision to make about where you pitch in. As you see a society develop in a way you are comfortable with, is that the time to double down and encourage it or do you turn your back on it?" he said.
"My view is very clear that they [Saudi Arabia] are a strong ally and that their society is moving very much in a way we have always called for societies around the world to move."