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Saudi crown prince to face protests on 7 March visit to Britain

Protest group announces demonstration against 'chief architect of brutal war in Yemen'
Mohammed bin Salman's visit will mark 'new era in bilateral relations', according to Theresa May's spokesman (AFP)

LONDON - Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will visit Britain on 7 March for talks with Theresa May that will include topics such as extremism, defence co-operation and social reforms, Downing Street said on Tuesday.

The Saudi royal has been the architect of the Saudi-led bombardment of Yemen, which has contributed to one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world in the country. Human rights groups claim it has been made possible by the sale of more than $6.4bn of UK-made weapons to Saudi forces, including advance munitions and Typhoon fighter jets.

'Saved British lives'

However, the prime minister staunchly defended the close relationship with Saudi Arabia on Tuesday despite the country facing accusations of war crimes in Yemen and human rights abuses at home, insisting that having close ties with the conservative kingdom over security has "saved British lives".

She also attempted to see off expected opposition to the visit over human rights concerns, insisting that the powerful crown prince is overseeing much-needed social and economic reforms in the oil-rich kingdom, and that the visit would allow Britain to talk "frankly and constructively" about areas of concern, including Yemen and security in the Middle East.

She said: “The partnership between the UK and Saudi Arabia already helps make both of our countries safer through intelligence-sharing which has saved British lives, and more prosperous, with thousands of jobs created in the UK and substantial opportunities for British companies in Saudi Arabia.

"The visit of the crown prince will establish the platform for that relationship to become even stronger." 

The visit will be the crown prince’s first to the UK since his appointment in June 2017 and since Saudi Arabia embarked on a programme of domestic reforms. These include lifting the ban on women driving from June this year, letting women attend major sporting events and allowing cinemas to operate in the country. 

“Saudi Arabia is changing. We have seen recent decisions to allow women to drive from June this year, a target for women to make up one-third of the Saudi workforce by 2030, and a move to develop sectors such as health, education, infrastructure, recreation and tourism," said May.

"These are all sectors where the UK leads the world and where there are new opportunities to work together."

Bin Salman is also expected to visit Paris and Washington during the tour.

Protests are expected

The announcement from Downing Street was followed almost immediately by activists calling for protests against his presence. The Stop the War Coalition announced it would picket the talks, and appealed to supporters to make clear the "chief architect of Saudi Arabia's brutal war in Yemen" was not welcome in London. 

The Campaign Against Arms Trade said it plans to hold a protest outside Downing Street from 5pm on 7 March, and that it will be supported by Global Justice Now, War on Want, Human Rights for Yemen and the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy.

Andrew Smith, spokesperson for CAAT, said: “The crown prince should never have been invited to Downing Street: he leads a regime with an appalling human rights record and has overseen the destruction of Yemen.

“The UK has armed and supported the terrible war since day one, and there is no doubt that arms sales will be top of the agenda next week. Theresa May is putting the interests of arms dealers above the rights of Yemeni people.”

Maya Foa, director of rights group Reprieve, said: “Mohammed bin Salman’s long-overdue reforms in Saudi Arabia must not be used to mask the ongoing crackdown on the exercise of fundamental rights. Since his appointment as crown prince, the final death sentences of protesters, including a number who were children at the time, have been confirmed amid serious allegations of torture and an unprecedented number of executions."

Downing Street sources used the announcement to stress that UK-Saudi collaboration has foiled militant attacks in the UK and was a "key part" of the international effort to defeat the Islamic State group.

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