Less than a third of the British public would support a trade deal with Saudi Arabia, data released by the government revealed as Foreign Secretary Liz Truss met with senior officials in the oil-rich state.
Truss is on a trip to the Gulf, where a government spokeswoman said she would discuss “Afghanistan, regional security, climate change and trade.”
But a survey by the Department of International Trade (DIT) earlier this year showed that only 27% of the public would support a trade deal with the country.
This compares to 64% for Australia and New Zealand, for example, and 57% for the United States.
Riyadh’s human rights record – including the alleged state involvement in the murder of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi – has returned to the UK spotlight in recent weeks after the Saudis took over Newcastle United Football Club.
Truss, who is now foreign minister, has made it clear that she wants trade and security to be more closely aligned.
The UK ran a Â£ 4.2 billion trade deficit with Saudi Arabia in the three months to August, according to the latest official figures.
The DIT had quietly tested public opinion on trade deals with several countries, including Saudi Arabia, but was forced to release the data under pressure from Labor.
Fictitious International Trade Secretary Emily Thornberry wrote to polling firm BMG after Truss said in a recent speech that 70% of the public supported the government’s trade deals.
Truss said, âOur best way forward is free trade and free enterprise. And I’m happy to say that people across Britain are agreeing more and more. Two-thirds of those polled last year supported free trade. Our most recent survey this year shows that support has increased. It reached 70% of the public supporting free trade.
Thornberry pointed out that the rules of the British Polling Council, which oversees policy research, mean ministers aren’t supposed to pull a single figure out of a poll without publishing the whole thing.
After consultation with BMG, the DIT published the full survey last week on its website.
Thornberry said: âThanks to Liz Truss’ latest blunder, we now know that the public support she’s been asking for for her trade deals is nothing of the sort.
âThe government simply does not have a mandate to take these steps on behalf of the country without properly consulting the public on the meaning of each agreement and what we are doing. [it] with.”
This was the fourth time that the DIT had tested public opinion on trade policy, but it was the first time that a question on Saudi Arabia had been included. The other additional countries included were Brazil and the United Arab Emirates. Truss is also visiting the United Arab Emirates on his trip to the Gulf.
The DIT said: âIt is standard practice for the government to investigate public attitudes towards future free trade agreements.
âThe UK encourages all states, including in the Middle East, to respect international human rights obligations – where the UK has cause for concern, we raise it officially and ministerial. “