Security, trade top agenda as Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince visits UK

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman began a three-day official visit to London on Wednesday that is desig...

Posted: Mar 7, 2018 12:50 PM
Updated: Mar 7, 2018 12:50 PM

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman began a three-day official visit to London on Wednesday that is designed to boost security and trade ties while bolstering the nation's international reputation.

The 32-year-old Crown Prince, who is first in line to inherit the throne from his 82-year-old father, King Salman, is being given the red carpet treatment while in the British capital, on what is his first major overseas trip since assuming the role last June.

He had a private audience with Queen Elizabeth II on Wednesday morning before meeting at Downing Street with UK Prime Minster Theresa May and dining with Prince Charles and Prince William.

Flag-waving supporters cheered outside Buckingham Palace as the Saudi motorcade arrived. However, the Crown Prince will also face protests by human rights campaigners outside Downing Street over Saudi Arabia's role in the war in Yemen, in which thousands of civilians have died while millions more are afflicted by acute malnutrition and cholera.

In response to lawmakers' questions Wednesday about UK arms deals with Saudi Arabia and the use of UK-made weapons in Yemen, May said she would raise concerns over the humanitarian crisis during talks with the Crown Prince.

"We are all concerned about the appalling humanitarian situation in Yemen and the effect it is having on people," she said. "That's why as a government we increased our funding for Yemen... we are the third largest humanitarian donor to the Yemen."

The trip, which also includes stops in Egypt and the United States, is seen as part of an effort by the Crown Prince -- considered a key power player behind the King and a reformer by Saudi standards -- to "rebrand" Saudi Arabia and show its openness to change. It has been accompanied by a major Saudi PR drive in which his image has been projected onto billboards in London; protesters have responded in kind.

He and his delegation will also seek to reassure international business leaders rattled by the Crown Prince's recent anti-corruption sweep, in which about 200 people -- including business executives, officials and at least 17 princes -- were arrested last year.

Meanwhile, May, who visited Saudi Arabia in November, will be keen to capitalize on the Crown Prince's visit to strengthen trade and security ties ahead of Britain's departure from the European Union. The two countries could sign more than a dozen memorandums of understanding during his visit and may seek to improve the visa relationship between their countries to ease travel for business representatives and tourists.

"The visit will usher in a new era in our bilateral relations with one of our oldest friends in the region," a UK government press statement said, adding that Britain hopes to find new business opportunities as a result of the Crown Prince's modernization program, Vision 2030.

Opposition Labour lawmaker and shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry criticized the red-carpet welcome given to the Crown Prince in an opinion piece for Britain's Guardian newspaper in which she highlighted the civilian toll of Yemen's civil war. She described the visit as being "about nothing but filthy lucre, and this government's desperation to plug the hole that will be left in Britain's trade and growth prospects" by Brexit.

The Muslim Association of Britain warned against entering into trade with Saudi Arabia "at the expense of essential values" and said recent "superficial" reforms by the Saudi government should not be taken at face value.

"The issue of human rights must absolutely remain at the very heart of any discussion, trade or otherwise, with Saudi Arabia," it said in an open letter to the Prime Minister on the eve of the visit.

Britain is already a major supplier of arms to Saudi Arabia but post-Brexit will increasingly have to compete with European arms industry.

The UK government has come under intense pressure over its sales of arms to Saudi Arabia amid concern they could be used in Yemen in breach of international humanitarian law. However, a UK High Court ruling last year rejected claims that it acted illegally in allowing the sale of arms to its powerful Gulf ally.

Saudi Arabia has waged a long military campaign in Yemen in support of the internationally recognized government that Houthi rebels drove out of the capital, Sanaa. Saudi military officials say they are committed to following the rules of armed conflict.

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