PM to raise human rights concerns in Saudi crown prince visit

PM to raise human rights concerns in Saudi crown prince visit
Theresa May and Mohammed bin Salman
Image caption Saudi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is at No 10 for talks with Theresa May

Theresa May says she will be “raising concerns about human rights” in Saudi Arabia as she begins talks with the country’s crown prince.

Mohammed bin Salman is starting a three-day visit to the UK amid protests planned against his country’s role in the war in Yemen.

Jeremy Corbyn accused the government of “colluding” in war crimes by selling arms to Riyadh.

But the PM said ties between the two nations had saved hundreds of lives.

The 32-year-old crown prince, who has just arrived in Downing Street for a meeting with Mrs May, is seen by some as a modernising force in the Gulf State.

He has already had lunch with the Queen and Duke of York, and is due to have dinner with the Prince of Wales and Duke of Cambridge.

The UK hopes to capitalise on the Saudi economy’s opening-up, but there were some protesters outside Downing Street against the killing of Yemeni civilians in air strikes by a Saudi-led multinational coalition – backed by the UK and US – that is battling the rebel Houthi movement.

The crown prince, who is regarded as being heir presumptive to the 82-year old King Salman, is making his first visit to the UK since taking up the role last year.

He is credited with kick-starting economic and social reforms in the conservative desert kingdom, such as the upcoming lifting of the ban on women driving.

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Media captionFive things about Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

He also launched an anti-corruption drive that saw princes, ministers and influential businessmen detained, and which generated an estimated $106bn (£76bn) in settlements.

However, many have criticised his decisions to intervene in Yemen and impose a de facto blockade of neighbouring Qatar, as well as crack down on perceived opponents of his policies.

A new Strategic Partnership Council will be established which it is hoped could lead to Saudi investment in and through the UK of up to £100bn during the next 10 years.

‘Saudis high on wish list’

By BBC diplomatic correspondent James Landale

When this relative novice on the world stage arrives in London on his first global tour since taking office, he will be granted the reddest of red carpets.

The Crown Prince is looking for international support for his internal economic reforms while at the same time trying to offer reassurance to nervous international investors.

And the British government is keen to transform a security and defence relationship into one that includes broader economic ties as well. The UK also has an unashamed appetite for inward investment from Saudi Arabia.

In other words, post-Brexit Britain will need allies, markets and money – and the Saudis are high on the UK’s wish list.

Read more from James

The conflict in Yemen is seen as part of a regional power struggle between Saudi Arabia, which backs the government, and Iran, which supports the Houthis but denies allegations that it is sending them weapons.

According to the United Nations, more than 9,000 people, over half of them civilians, have been killed and more than 52,000 injured in fighting in Yemen since March 2015.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn – at Prime Minister’s Questions – urged Mrs May to use her meeting with the crown prince to call for a halt to “the shocking abuse of human rights in Saudi Arabia”, which he claimed included a sharp increase in the arrest and detention of dissidents, the torture of prisoners, unfair trials and executions.

The PM responded by saying the UK’s historic links with Saudi Arabia had saved the lives of potentially hundreds of people in this country, but she would be “raising concerns about human rights”.

Mr Corbyn added that 600,000 children in Yemen had cholera “because of the Saudi-led bombing campaign and the blockade”, and asked why British arms sales to Saudi Arabia had “sharply increased”.

“Germany has suspended arms sales to Saudi Arabia but British arms sales have sharply increased, and British military advisers are directing war,” he said.

“It cannot be right that her government is colluding in what the United Nations says is evidence of war crimes. Will you use your meeting today with the crown prince to halt the arms supplies and demand an immediate ceasefire in Yemen?”

Image copyright PA
Image caption Vans carrying billboards protesting against the visit in Westminster
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Other vans parked in Whitehall feature a welcome to the Saudi crown prince
Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Billboards next to London’s A4 advertise the Saudi crown prince with the hashtag “#ANewSaudiArabia”

Mrs May told the Commons everyone was “concerned” about the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

She said she had raised concerns about the Saudi blockades of ports in Yemen during a meeting in December, and it withdrew.

“This vindicates the engagement that we have with Saudi Arabia, to be able to sit down with them,” she said. “Their involvement in Yemen came at the request of the legitimate government of the Yemen, it is backed by the United Nations Security Council and as such we support it.”

The prime minister’s official spokesman also rejected Mr Corbyn’s claims that British military advisers were “directing the war”.

“We’re not a member of that (Saudi-led) coalition; we’re not involved in carrying out strikes, directing or conducting operations, or involved in the targeting decision making process,” he said.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Earlier, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had lunch with the Queen

Earlier Emily Thornberry, the foreign affairs spokeswoman for Labour, the UK’s main opposition party, urged Mrs May to use the UK’s influence to call on Saudi Arabia “to stop” the bombing in Yemen.

“We’re in a unique position to be able to intervene in this and to stop the war in Yemen and to do that as a friend,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“I would say our relationship with you is important – we need to be friends – but that it would be wrong for us to lie to you.

“You’re going too far in relation to what you’re doing in Yemen.

“We’re very concerned that you in Saudi Arabia now believe that you can win the war in Yemen. You can’t win the war in Yemen – we all know that in our heart of hearts.”

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