THE habitual reaction was to shy away. Saudi Arabia’s princes used to shrink from Britain’s press like women in purdah. A critical BBC documentary prompted King Khalid to cancel a trip to Britain in 1980. Royal visits, after all, were hunting season, rich in opportunities to bash the kingdom. “Truth about the savage House of Saud,” roared the Daily Mirror during the late King Abdullah’s visit in 2007, arguing that flags should hang at half-mast “in shame” to receive a monarch who “squandered [his wealth] on whores, palaces and private jets”. The Saudis responded with silence. Eliciting a “no comment” was an accomplishment. Everything was banned in the kingdom—journalists most of all.

By contrast Mohammed bin Salman, the young Saudi crown prince who began his first official visit to London on March 7th, has ordered a PR blitz. Bright young Saudi graduates of Western universities staff the ranks of a new Centre for International Communication in Riyadh. Ministries have press offices for the first time. The three-day London trip includes a “celebration of culture” showcasing Saudi art, music and film, forms of expression that in the old kingdom might have merited a lashing. Saudi lobbyists have taken out ads in the papers (including this one) and placed billboards hailing “the united kingdoms” along London’s arteries. Pop-up ads litter the internet with portraits of the young prince, claiming that he is “empowering Saudi Arabian women”.

The charm offensive is an uphill battle. Protesters again made their voices heard, particularly on Saudi Arabia’s bombing of Yemen, which was loudly denounced by a modest crowd outside Downing Street. Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party leader, again called for Britain’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia to be suspended. Many of the papers that ran the kingdom’s ads published critical editorials alongside them.

But Theresa May’s Brexit-bound government cannot afford to upset prospective trade partners. British defence firms have done £4.6bn ($6.4bn) of business with Saudi Arabia since the kingdom began its bombardment of in Yemen in 2015. The London Stock Exchange is vying to handle the flotation of Aramco, the national oil company, which could be the world’s biggest. Downing Street said the two countries were eyeing £65bn of “mutual trade and investment opportunities” in “the coming years”.

British diplomats in the kingdom sometimes chide journalists for widening the gap between the reality of life in Saudi Arabia and the country’s bloodthirsty image. Under Prince Mohammed, the kingdom has improved access for journalists and expanded personal freedoms, particularly for women. But it still flinches at anything other than a fawning press. It excludes reporters for making unfavourable documentaries and muzzles local naysayers.

The prince’s personality cult dominates roadside billboards and the airwaves. The chattering classes, who once loudly complained, now switch off their phones and whisper. Plainclothes policemen pretend to take selfies, while filming café gossip. And opinion-makers risk arrest not just for criticising the prince, but for failing to tweet government talking-points, according to some who have fled or been jailed. While the PR campaign goes on in Britain, Saudis are getting the charm offensive too, only sometimes minus the charm.