UK PM heads to Saudi for talks on oil, Russia

UK PM heads to Saudi for talks on oil, Russia
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is to proceed with a visit to Saudi Arabia despite criticism over the kingdom's execution of 81 people last weekend.
3 min read
Boris Johnson's trip to Saudi Arabia is going ahead despite criticism [Getty]

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday brushed off concern about his upcoming trip to Saudi Arabia, as part of efforts to wean the West off Russian oil after its invasion of Ukraine.

Johnson is expected to meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman this week, hoping he can persuade him to boost the Gulf state's oil production to offset the impact of economic sanctions against the Kremlin on global energy prices.

The visit is controversial, however, with longstanding concern about the wealthy kingdom's human rights record, and after a mass execution of 81 people last weekend.

Bin Salman has also been accused of masterminding the murder of journalist and Riyadh critic Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

Johnson, a former journalist, said a new coalition of countries was needed to prevent Vladimir Putin's Russia holding Western countries hostage through energy supplies.

And he shrugged off questions that tackling the spike in global oil prices caused by the invasion and sanctions meant dealing with unpleasant regimes.

"We need to talk to other producers around the world about how we can move away from that dependency," he said.

"We want to build the widest possible coalition to ensure that we focus on what is happening in Ukraine, the effect that is having on the price of oil and gas."

Odds against him

Johnson's spokesman said separately that human rights concerns and the executions would be raised, and bin Salman would be asked to condemn Putin, and step up sanctions.

"It's a message the prime minister will carry to all world leaders," he told reporters adding that it was "important we have a coordinated response" to maintain pressure.

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

Russian imports account for 8.0 percent of total UK oil demand - less than in mainland Europe, where there has been a reluctance to turn the taps off completely.

Last week, countries including Germany warned against an abrupt ban on Russian energy imports given the lack of immediate alternative supplies.

Surges in oil prices in recent weeks have done little to alleviate growing public concerns in the UK and elsewhere about spiralling inflation and the cost of living.

Torbjorn Solvedt, Middle East and North Africa analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, said efforts by the United States to bring down oil prices have so far amounted to little.

He said the odds were "stacked against Johnson as he seeks to secure a shift in Saudi and OPEC oil policy".

"Saudi Arabia has so far proved reluctant to deviate from the current OPEC+ framework and plan, which mandates incremental monthly production increases," he told AFP.

"The framework has been highly effective during the Covid-19 pandemic and there is strong reluctance to change course."