Less than a third of the UK public would support a trade deal with Saudi Arabia, data published by the government has revealed as the foreign secretary, Liz Truss, meets senior figures in the oil-rich state.
Truss is on a trip to the Gulf, where a government spokesperson said she would discuss “Afghanistan, regional security, climate change and trade”.
But a survey carried out by the Department for International Trade (DIT) earlier this year showed just 27% of the public would support a trade deal with the country.
That compared with 64% for both Australia and New Zealand, for example, and 57% for the US.
Riyadh’s human rights record – including alleged state involvement in the murder of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi – has been back in the spotlight in the UK in recent weeks after the Saudi takeover of Newcastle United Football Club.
Truss, who is now foreign secretary, has made clear she wants trade and security to be more closely aligned.
The UK ran a £4.2bn trade deficit with Saudi Arabia in the three months to August, according to the latest official figures.
The DIT had been quietly testing public opinion on trade deals with several countries, including Saudi Arabia, but was forced to publish the data after pressure from Labour.
The shadow international trade secretary, Emily Thornberry, wrote to the polling company BMG after Truss said in a recent speech that 70% of the public supported the government’s trade deals.
Truss said: “Our best way forward is free trade and free enterprise. And I’m pleased to say that people across Britain increasingly agree. Two-thirds of those surveyed last year supported free trade. Our most recent survey taken this year shows that support has risen. It has hit 70% of the public supporting free trade.”
Thornberry pointed out that the rules of the British Polling Council, which oversees political research, mean that ministers are not meant to pluck a single figure from a survey without publishing the whole thing.
After consultation with BMG, the DIT published the full survey last week on its website.
Thornberry said: “Thanks to Liz Truss’s latest blunder, we now know that the public support she was claiming for her trade deals is nothing of the sort.
“The government simply does not have a mandate to take these actions on the country’s behalf without properly consulting the public about what each agreement means, and who we’re doing [it] with.”
The survey was the fourth time the DIT had tested public opinion on trade policy, but the first time a question on Saudi Arabia was included. The other additional countries included were Brazil and the UAE. Truss is also visiting the UAE on her trip to the Gulf.
The DIT said: “It is standard practice for the government to survey ongoing public attitudes towards future free trade agreements.
“The UK encourages all states, including in the Middle East, to uphold international human rights obligations – where the UK has cause for concern we raise it at official and ministerial level.”