Boris Johnson is poised to travel to Saudi Arabia next week for talks on oil as he attempts to move the UK away from dependence on energy supplies from Russia.
Although Downing Street insists the trip is not finalised or confirmed, the prime minister is facing calls from Tory MPs to intervene to urge the Saudis to release more oil.
The potential trip has emerged as fuel prices at the pumps have reached record levels, topping £1.60 a litre for petrol and £1.70 for diesel, according to the RAC’s latest figures.
Government insiders claim the prime minister has better links with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman than any other G7 leader and that the pair have exchanged WhatsApp messages.
In contrast, it has been reported that the prince refused to take a call from President Biden, who has denounced Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
Mr Johnson’s potential trip comes as Saudi Arabia announced that it executed 81 men, including seven Yemenis and one Syrian, for terrorism and other offences including holding “deviant beliefs” in the biggest mass execution in decades.
The Saudi interior ministry said: “These individuals, totalling 81, were convicted of various crimes including murdering innocent men, women and children.
“Crimes committed by these individuals also include pledging allegiance to foreign terrorist organisations, such as ISIS, al-Qaeda and the Houthis.”
The last time the kingdom carried out an execution of a similar scale was in 1980 when 63 people were killed in one day, a year after militants seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, according to state media reports.
On the prime minister’s plans to travel to Saudi Arabia for a meeting with the prince, The Times reported: “The trip has not been finalised, but is looking increasingly likely.”
A No 10 spokesperson told Sky News: “Nothing is planned at the moment. We will update in the usual way if anything is confirmed.”
In his interview with Beth Rigby on Sky News on Thursday, Mr Johnson said: “What we are going to do is look at our energy supply… to move away from dependence on Russian oil and gas.
“We are now going to do the dramatic steps that we need to take to have independent energy supply, so that we’re no longer capable of being blackmailed by Putin.”
Claiming Mr Johnson is well placed to persuade the Saudis to pump more oil, government insiders point to his praise for the prince’s reform agenda when he was foreign secretary.
And controversially, unlike the United States, the UK has continued to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, defying critics who protested that the weapons were being used in the war on Yemen.
The prime minister’s allies also point out that in a highly significant coup he persuaded the Saudis to commit to net zero by 2060 ahead of the COP26 summit in Glasgow last year.
Mr Johnson has been due to visit Saudi Arabia twice in recent years, most recently last month on a trip postponed because of the Ukraine crisis. A phone call was held instead.
And senior Conservative MPs believe that after the Saudis’ phone call snub to President Biden, Mr Johnson could broker an oil deal which could be crucial to easing the energy crisis.
Ex-minister Steve Baker, a leading figure in the Tories’ Net Zero Scrutiny Group, told The Daily Telegraph this week: “Boris has come into his own during this crisis.
“Now would be just the moment for him to help deliver more flows of oil and gas from Saudi Arabia so we can shut down Putin’s war machine sooner.”
Former Middle East minister Andrew Murrison said: “The UK has always maintained a positive and constructive relationship with Saudi based on dialogue. I’m sure that will be useful in the current context.”