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May defends Saudi ties as crown prince 'takes tea with the Queen'

Prime minister faces protests and pressure in Westminster as UK moves towards inking $90bn deal with Riyadh
Protests against UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia outside Downing Street in central London on Wednesday (AFP)

LONDON - Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s first day in London saw him lunch with Queen Elizabeth, visit the Churchill War Rooms and meet with Theresa May at Downing Street, as a fierce political row over UK military support for Riyadh threatened to overshadow the Saudi royal’s first official visit to the UK.

A crowd of about 200 anti-war protesters gathered outside Downing Street on Wednesday evening, as the crown prince and the British leader held a bilateral meeting after a day of fierce debate in parliament.

This challenged a UK government charm offensive trying to leverage the visit into a more far-reaching defence partnership in spite of criticism that May is overlooking human rights concerns and the war in Yemen to “plug the hole in trade and growth” caused by the UK's forthcoming exit from the European Union.

Wednesday afternoon saw May and bin Salman hold the first meeting of the newly announced UK-Saudi Arabia Strategic Partnership Council, as the UK moved to formally back the crown prince's Vision 2030 project.

The Downing Street meeting saw the two leaders agree to a “landmark ambition” for about £65bn ($90bn) in investment, including new Saudi investment in the UK, in what officials called a “significant boost for UK prosperity”.

Welcome for recent reforms

The new investment includes an education agreement, a Downing Street spokesman said, as protesters shouted outside amid tight security.

During the meeting, May “welcomed recent reforms” in Saudi Arabia, but reportedly also noted “particular concerns” over the case of Raif Badawi, a Saudi blogger who was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for setting up a website focused on social and political debate.

On Wednesday, bin Salman also received a briefing from UK security officials that included a section on Yemen, where the UK is a major international backer of Saudi intervention.

The UK has licensed more than $6.4bn in arms to Saudi Arabia since the start of the war in Yemen in 2015, including advanced jets and munitions.

The conflict has killed more than 10,000 people - many of them civilians who died in Saudi-led coalition air strikes. Millions more civilians face starvation and disease in a humanitarian crisis aid agencies say has largely been ignored by world powers.

The war has reached an effective stalemate. It includes a blockade that the UN says has left more than eight million civilians facing a famine.

The government spokesman said that May had raised “deep concerns” about the humanitarian situation in the country. However, this is unlikely to satisfy critics, including those protesting outside Downing Street, who called for a "blockade" and "sanctions" on Saudi Arabia over the conflict.

Speaking outside, Lindsey German, chair of the left-wing Stop the War Coalition, described May as a "disgusting woman" and called bin Salman "murderous". 

Bin Salman's first official engagement on Wednesday was a trip to Buckingham Palace to see Queen Elizabeth - a rare honour usually reserved for heads of state. He was expected to return to the royal household for dinner with Prince Charles later in the day, and is due to visit the prime minister’s country residence on Thursday for more talks.

Cries of shame

Earlier on Wednesday afternoon, Labour and other opposition politicians cried “shame” as May defended the UK’s defence relationship with Saudi Arabia in parliament.

"The link that we have with Saudi Arabia is historic, it is an important one, and it has saved the lives of potentially hundreds of people in this country," she said.

May added that she would be “raising issues of human rights” with the crown prince, but in fiery exchanges with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, she was accused of “colluding” in war crimes in Yemen.

“Germany has suspended arms sales to Saudi Arabia, but British arms sales have increased sharply and British military advisers are directing the war,” said Corbyn, who has repeatedly called for a halt to arms exports to Saudi Arabia.

“As she [May] makes her arms sales pitch, will she also call on the crown prince to halt the shocking abuse of human rights in Saudi Arabia?” he said.

Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry later asserted that arms sales to Saudi Arabia are “trying to plug the hole of trade and growth” caused by Brexit, in an intervention that prompted jeers from government ministers.

May's spokesman said British personnel had no role in carrying out air strikes, were not involved in directing or conducting operations in Yemen, and were not involved in Saudi targeting decisions.

However, Royal Air Force (RAF) officers are based with the Saudi-led coalition in Riyadh and the British Army has provided training to Saudi ground forces.

The UK government has also overseen a 75 percent increase in opaque open arms export licences, which have served a vital role in keeping Saudi military planes in the air over Yemen, as revealed by MEE earlier this week.

'Stop the war, hands off Yemen'

Protests on Downing Street on Wednesday were smaller than expected, but police confirmed one arrest after a Bahraini activist threw an egg at a vehicle as bin Salman's motorcade arrived.

This occurred as protesters heard speeches from opposition politicians and anti-war campaigners, including Labour MP Chris Williamson, who urged May to used British influence to help bring the war in Yemen to an end.

He told the crowd: "Britain used to be the pride of the world for promoting human rights. Now, there is no despotic government anywhere in the world that this government will not deal with."

Ameen Nemer, 38, a Saudi exile from east of the country who attended the protest, told MEE: "My message to bin Salman is for him to stop the war, hands off Yemen and stop arresting and executing peaceful activists and campaigners inside Saudi Arabia."

He added: "He's being hailed by the London press as a reformer, and letting women drive is a welcome first step, but what he calls reform... I don't call reform. Real reform would be to allow civil society, let the people make decisions and call for elections. There is nothing in Vision 2030 about political reforms."

At a counter-protest of about 50 pro-Saudi activists, including Yemenis, Arwh Ahzzah told MEE she had turned out to "support the crown prince".

"He is helping Yemen and I support Saudi bombing. Yemen needs to be protected from the Houthis," said the activist, who is originally from Taiz.

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