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UK signals deeper military ties with Riyadh amid arms sales protests

UK says it will help review 'Saudi defence capabilities' and overhaul its defence ministry, amid calls to end arms sales to Riyadh
May and King Salman in Riyadh on 4 April 2017 (Reuters)

The British government has said it will strengthen defence cooperation and deepen military ties with Saudi Arabia, as it faces growing pressure to untangle from the Saudi-led war in Yemen and end weapons sales to Riyadh.

The plans were announced as Theresa May visited Riyadh on Wednesday, and are among a number of initiatives designed to boost trade and cooperation after the UK leaves the European Union.

In a statement, the prime minister's office said the UK would assist Saudi Arabia in reforming its ministry of defence, and review Saudi defence capabilities and joint working across the Saudi armed forces.

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The office said a six-monthly "strategic dialogue" would be set up "to build on existing security, defence and intelligence co-operation" with Riyadh.

The announcement comes as Britain is facing calls to end weapons sales and military cooperation with Saudi Arabia due to Riyadh's conduct in the war in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia is accused of bombing civilian targets, in attacks that rights groups have condemned as war crimes, as well as choking humanitarian supplies and leaving millions of Yemenis on the brink of starvation.

Britain has sold billions of dollars of weapons to Saudi Arabia, including munitions, helicopters and tanks, since Riyadh entered the war in Yemen to support the government of President Abd Rabbuh Hadi.

The British military also aid and train Saudi forces, with dozens of UK military personnel based in the country.

The Campaign Against Arms Trade has won a judicial review of arms sales to Saudi Arabia, with a decision pending.

Rosa Curling, representing CAAT, welcomed the review, saying there was "overwhelming evidence that the Saudi-led coalition has committed serious breaches of international humanitarian law in Yemen."

The British government has rejected calls to end arms sales to the kingdom, saying that engaging with Riyadh is the only way to improve its record. The government has licensed sales worth $4.1bn since the Yemen war began in 2014.

The prime minister's office directed Middle East Eye requests for further information to the Foreign Office, which in turn directed MEE to the prime minister's office.

CAAT's Andrew Smith, speaking to Middle East Eye, said: "We're always being told that in order to influence the Saudi regime, we need to sell it arms and cooperate with it militarily. But whose interests does it serve? Certainly not those being beaten, tortured and executed in Saudi prisons just for demanding basic human rights.

"After 60 years of supposed UK influence the regime continues to beat journalists, torture opponents and give minimal rights to women. If this is the end result of 60 years of UK engagement then we have to ask how strong that influence really is, and how hard issues of human rights are really being pushed.

"Over the last two years, the Saudi military has unleashed a brutal humanitarian catastrophe on Yemen, and done so with UK support. 

"The Saudi dictatorship can make all of the cosmetic changes it wants, but it can't hide its appalling human rights record. The UK should be breaking its toxic military and political support for the regime, not strengthening it.”

Trade deals

Britain also said it would help Saudi Arabia on "tax and privatisation standards to help Saudi Arabia diversify its economy and become less reliant on oil," a statement released by the prime minister's office said. 

Saudi Arabia faces a significant budget deficit with billions of dollars owed in debts to private firms, largely in the construction business, after a drop in global oil prices by about half since 2014.

Speaking ahead of her visit to Saudi Arabia, May said: "These new partnerships – on defence and security, trade and the economy, education, healthcare, culture and sport – evidence the breadth and depth of the UK’s relationship with Saudi Arabia.

"We are firm supporters of Saudi Arabia’s 'Vision 2030', an ambitious blueprint for internal reform that aims to deliver greater inclusivity for all Saudi citizens – something we agree is essential to Saudi Arabia’s long-term stability and success.

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