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UK PM asks Saudi king to lift Yemen blockade to avoid ‘catastrophe’

The PM and the king agreed the relationship between the two countries was strong and would endure
Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud walks with Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May in Riyadh on Wednesday (Reuters)

British Prime Minister Theresa May has stressed to Saudi leaders that the blockade of Yemen needs to be eased urgently in order to “avert a humanitarian catastrophe", her office said on Thursday, while stressing the relationship between the kingdoms was strong and would endure.

"The prime minister made clear that the flow of commercial supplies... must be resumed if we are to avert a humanitarian catastrophe," it said after she met King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman late on Wednesday.

“They agreed that steps needed to be taken as a matter of urgency to address this and that they would take forward more detailed discussions on how this could be achieved,” the statement added.

A blockade on Yemen was introduced on 6 November, and only recently and partially lifted to allow some humanitarian deliveries into the country, which was struggling even before the Saudi-led war against in was launched in early 2015.

The United Nations has warned that unless the blockade is lifted, Yemen will face "the largest famine the world has seen for decades".

Seven million Yemenis are completely dependent on humanitarian supplies for their survival, according to the UN.

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Saudi Arabia is Britain's largest trading partner in the Middle East, and London has signed off on more than $4.4bn worth of arms sales to Riyadh since March 2015.

During that time a Saudi-led coalition has embarked on a bombing campaign in Yemen that has been condemned for contributing to a humanitarian disaster.

The war has killed about 10,000 people, while thousands more have died of cholera.

May and the king and crown prince “agreed the relationship between the UK and Saudi Arabia was strong and would endure,” the Downing Street statement added. 

At a press conference in Jordan after meeting King Abdullah II, May excoriated Tehran for "destabilising activity" across the region from Yemen to Syria.  

The Saudi-led coalition, which began its military intervention in Yemen in 2015, has accused Iran of supplying ballistic missiles to the rebels. Tehran denies the charge.

May called for a tougher response to Iran's "ballistic programme and proliferation of weapons" and said it was "unacceptable" for the Houthis to fire missiles at Riyadh. 

On Syria, the British premier called on all players to "unite behind" UN-led talks in Geneva and "stop creating rival" processes as Russia, Iran and Turkey push a separate initiative.