Saudi Arabia, UK defend their historical partnership
PM Theresa May met Crown Prince Mohammed amid human rights protests
8 March, 2018Britain rolled out the red carpet for Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman last week amid sharp debates in Parliament and street demonstration against the war in Yemen and Riyadh's human rights abuses. During his three-day visit to the UK, Prince Mohammed had lunch with the Queen at Buckingham Palace, diner with Prince Charles and Prince William and was welcomed by PM Theresa May at 10 Downing Street in London.May had to defend Britain's links to security ally Saudi Arabia last Wednesday in parliament in a fiery exchange with opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn. “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,” May said, pausing her answer briefly as opposition lawmakers cried “Shame!” Corbyn said British military advisers were “directing the war” in Yemen. While May talked with Saudi Crown Prince, demonstrators gathered outside her office to protest at both countries' role in Yemen, where war has killed around 10,000 people. Surrounded by police, protesters chanted “Hands off Yemen - stop the bombing now” and said the crown prince should not have been invited. A Saudi-led coalition intervened militarily in Yemen in 2015 and critics say Riyadh has been using British-supplied weapons in devastating strikes. May said all arms sales were strictly regulated, that Saudi Arabia's involvement in the conflict was backed by the UN Security Council and her government supported it. The UK media cited a Downing Street spokesperson who said that during their meeting Theresa May had stressed the need for a political solution to the war in Yemen and urged Saudi Arabia to allow unfettered humanitarian and commercial access. She also “welcomed” recent reforms in Saudi Arabia, “including on women attending sporting events and the cinema, and being legally able to drive from June.” The Saudi Crown Prince has pushed through a number of dramatic social reforms, including allowing women to drive and lifting a ban on movie theatres. But many observers said the modernisation measures aimed only to mask continuing rights abuses. After talks at Downing Street, the prime minister and Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS as he is known, hosted the inaugural meeting of the “UK-Saudi Arabia Strategic Partnership Council”, a trade and investment body that hopes to see multi-billion deals between the two kingdoms. “The meeting agreed a landmark ambition for around £65bn ($90.3bn) of mutual trade and investment opportunities over the coming years, including direct investment in the UK and new Saudi public procurement with UK companies,” a Downing Street spokesperson said in a press release. Sectors include finance, education, healthcare, renewable energy and defence. Britain is looking for trading partners as it exits the EU, and energy powerhouse Saudi Arabia needs to convince sceptical investors about its domestic reforms, observers noted.