'We need to do a better job of showing who we are': Saudi Arabia's new ambassador to the UK reveals how Sandhurst prepared him for crisis-filled job

Con Coughlin
Prince Khalid, pictured in the Saudi embassy in London, is the son of the country's former long-standing ambassador to the US - Geoff Pugh for the Telegraph

For someone who has endured the rigours of military training at Sandhurst, the newly-appointed Saudi ambassador to Britain has the qualities needed to mount a robust defence of his country’s interests.

The experience of being an officer cadet at Sandhurst in the 1990s has certainly left an indelible mark on Prince Khalid bin Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the new Saudi ambassador to London. “Anyone who has undergone any military training will tell you it can often be a trying time,” he recalls.

“Whether it was hallucinating on 80 kilometre enforced marches in the Brecon Beacons, or being told your college buildings are in the wrong place and you have to spend all night moving them two metres to the right, these experiences shape you and make you who you are. They also teach you that if there is a problem there is a solution.”

Since taking up his position as Saudi ambassador to London last year, Prince Khalid has had more than his fair share of problems to deal with, usually with no easy solutions on offer.

He took up his position amid the controversy over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018, an outrage that has had profound consequences for Riyadh’s relations with traditional allies such as Britain.

The 42-year-old, who was educated at Eton, is married to the niece of the 12th Duke of Northumberland Credit: Geoff Pugh

And this week he has had to deal with the fall-out from the allegation that Saudi Arabia’s all-powerful Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, was involved in hacking the phone of Amazon owner Jeff Bezos.

On the Khashoggi affair, the ambassador is unequivocal in condemning the journalist’s brutal murder at the Saudi consulate, which he visited to obtain documentation so that he could marry his fiance.

Speaking in his first British newspaper interview since his appointment, Prince Khaled said: “There is no question that the events in Istanbul were a stain on our society, our country and our culture.”

As for the Bezos controversy, he argued it was difficult for the Saudis to defend themselves when they had not been presented with all the facts. “It is very easy for people to throw these unsubstantiated allegations against Saudi Arabia because they know that it is very difficult for Riyadh to defend itself when it does not have proper access to the details,” he explained.

“We need to see the evidence before we make any response, because the evidence made public so far is  circumstantial at best.

“In Saudi we do not always represent ourselves very well because we are a reticent people and our culture does not push us to talking about ourselves. We need to do a better job on showing the world who we really are.”

The dynamic 42-year-old ambassador, who is directly descended from Ibn Saud, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, has impeccable credentials for his current position, having spent much of his childhood at the Saudi embassy in Washington, where his father Prince Bandar, was his country’s long-serving ambassador.

He is also well-versed in the more elite institutions of British society, having been educated at Eton and Pembroke College, Oxford before going to Sandhurst. In his bachelor days he dated the actress and model Vanessa Haydon, who later married Donald Trump Jr, and is now himself married to Lucy, the niece of the 12th Duke of Northumberland.

Indeed, his ties to the British aristocracy are such that his wife’s maternal great grandmother, Lady Celia Crewe-Milnes, was actually born in the opulent mansion in London’s Curzon  Street that now houses the Saudi Embassy. Prince Khalid has decidedly mixed emotions about his privileged English upbringing.

“No experience comes without highs and lows,” he recalls. “I remember arriving at boarding school in England and  being asked all kinds of questions - did I have camels? Was my life like it is in the movie in films like Coming to America?”

Nevertheless he believes the experience helped him to acquire a profound understanding of Britain, a country he now regards as being his second home.

“The experience of living abroad showed me that , while we may have different cultural backgrounds, as human beings we are all fundamentally the same.

“My experience in the UK has given me a unique knowledge of the country. I have spent some of the formative years of my life here so I feel I know it well. I have a British wife and two half-British daughters. It is almost a second home for me.

“As I result to want to bring these two countries together as I feel they should be. The Uk is one of our oldest allies in the West. One of the first countries we had dealings with following the creation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was Britain.”

One of his main tasks as Ambassador will be to lobby the British government to take a hard line on the Iran issue, where Riyadh is a fierce critic of the nuclear deal signed with Tehran in 2015 as it does not address other issues, such as Iran’s activities elsewhere in the Arab world.

“Iran’s meddling in the region is as challenging as the nuclear programme,” he explained. “This is why we were concerned with the nuclear deal, because it did not address all the other things that Iran was doing in the region.

“We do not seek conflict. We do not seek escalation. We have always been supporters of taking a firm stand against Iran. Our issue is not with the people of Iran, it is with the regime running the country.

"But we do not believe in appeasement. At no point in history has appeasement proved to be a successful strategy. You cannot give in to a country like Iran because they will see it as a sign of weakness.”

The other important issue Prince Khalid will be dealing with during his tenure as ambassador will be to promote the dramatic changes taking place in his country as part of the wholesale economic and social reforms being undertaken by the Crown Prince known as Vision 2030.

“The biggest challenge facing SA at the moment is domestic,” he said. “We have a country where we are trying to radically change the quality of life for  ordinary Saudis for the better. These are very ambitious aims. You have seen it encapsulated in the programme Vision 2030 that the Crown Prince has launched. It is a very ambitious programme, but I think we are up to it.”

He is also keen to encourage a better understanding of Saudi Arabia among ordinary Britons.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about Saudi Arabia. We want people to come and see Saudi Arabia for themselves, and not rely on what they have read somewhere or heard somewhere to form their opinion of the country. “There is plenty to see, and you will find a warm, generous and hospitable people there waiting to greet you.” 

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