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Theresa May to visit Saudi Arabia in post-Brexit trade push

Groups call on her to discuss conflict in Yemen, human rights and executions with Saudi leaders
UK Prime Minister Theresa May (AFP/file photo)

Theresa May has been urged to raise human rights and the conflict in Yemen when she meets Saudi leaders on Tuesday, after Downing Street confirmed the British prime minister is set to travel to Saudi Arabia this week.

May is understood to be travelling to Jordan on Monday, before flying to Riyadh on Tuesday, where she is expected to meet with King Salman and senior members of the Saudi ruling family.

Middle East Eye understands the visit will focus not just on counter-terrorism, amid claims that Saudi intelligence has potentially saved hundreds of British lives, but will also focus on a closer post-Brexit trading relationship between the two countries.

"To tackle the threats we face from terrorism and from geopolitical instability, we must meet them at their source," May said in a statement. "Jordan is on the frontline of multiple regional crises and I’m clear that by working with them, we are helping keep British people safe.

“Likewise in Saudi Arabia: We must never forget that intelligence we have received in the past from that country has saved potentially hundreds of lives in the UK," she said.

May is expected to use the visit to the Middle East to stress the need for collaboration in the wake of the Westminster attack, while also offering additional humanitarian support to Jordan to help it handle the large number of Syrian refugees crossing its borders.

We must never forget that intelligence we have received in the past from that country has saved potentially hundreds of lives in the UK
-UK Prime Minister Theresa May

Still, rights groups have criticised Saudi Arabia – a key UK military ally in the Middle East – over its bombing campaign in Yemen, where thousands of civilians have been killed in the two years since Riyadh intervened against Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

Since the start of the Yemen campaign, UK government ministers have granted export licences for more than $4.1bn of arms to Saudi Arabia, including aircraft, munitions and other equipment.

The British High Court is currently weighing up a verdict on a judicial review to halt the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia, amid claims they have been used to illegally kill civilians in Yemen.

Andrew Smith, spokesperson for CAAT, which is bringing the court challenge, told MEE: “For the last two years the UK has armed and supported the terrible Saudi-led destruction of Yemen. The High Court is considering the legality of these arms sales, yet Theresa May is in Riyadh trying to sell even more weapons.”

Much will be made of the fact that May has chosen Riyadh as her first overseas destination after triggering Article 50, the mechanism by which the British government begins the negotiations to exit the European Union.

Saudi Arabia is already the UK’s leading trading partner in the Middle East with annual trade worth $8.2bn a year, Downing Street is expected to stress on Monday. 

Saudi Arabia has also invested more than $75bn in the UK economy and government ministers repeatedly note that the relationship helps protect British security.

In December last year, May described the UK as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf’s “partner of choice” during a visit to Bahrain to address the Gulf Co-Operation Council (GCC). She also used the visit, where she spoke from the deck of a Royal Navy warship, to announce the establishment of the first joint UK-GCC counter-terrorism working group.

That visit was attacked by rights groups, including Reprieve and CAAT, for focusing squarely on security and post-Brexit trade at the expense of raising human rights concerns.

May’s visit also takes place amid fears for three prisoners who were arrested as children in 2012 and sentenced to death on charges relating to protests.

Speaking for CAAT, Smith added: “There has always been rank hypocrisy underpinning the UK foreign policy and it looks like it could get even worse in the aftermath of Brexit. If the UK is to play a positive role in Yemen or the wider region, then May must stop the arms sales and end UK complicity in the bombardment."

The visit comes at a time when UK-Saudi relations are in the spotlight after the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was reported to have officially apologised to Saudi Arabia for what it called “an aggression” against Saudi Major General Ahmed Asiri, who was hit by an egg thrown by activists trying to perform a citizen's arrest in London on Thursday.
The Saudi press agency SPA said Johnson called Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, the Saudi defence minister, to officially “express his regret for the attack” and “stress his interest in the results of the investigation”. 
Following the apology, The Guardian reported that Scotland Yard is in the early stages of examining allegations of war crimes by Saudi Arabia, in a revelation that could trigger a possible diplomatic row on the eve of the visit.

The Metropolitan police confirmed in a letter seen by Middle East Eye that its war crimes unit has launched a “scoping exercise” into claims Saudi Arabia has led a deadly aerial campaign that rights groups say has broken international humanitarian law in Yemen.

The letter, dated 31 March, said that if police officers had reason to believe Asiri was in the UK they would consider “any opportunities to arrest or interview any individuals, should we deem the action to be proportionate, legal and necessary as part of the scoping exercise”.
May’s visit also takes place amid fears for three prisoners who were arrested as children in 2012 and sentenced to death on charges relating to protests. 

Abdullah al-Zaher, Dawoud al-Marhoon and Ali al-Nimr were sentenced to beheading and, in Ali’s case, "crucifixion" despite their being 15, 17 and 17 respectively at the time of their arrest. 

Rights group Reprieve said that all three were tortured into “forced confessions” and sentenced in “secretive trials”.

Groups including Reprieve have previously raised concerns that UK funding and training for Saudi security forces could be contributing to human rights abuses in the kingdom, including the use of the death penalty.

Last year, 47 people were executed en masse in the kingdom, prompting then British Prime Minister David Cameron to postpone a planned visit.

Harriet McCulloch, a deputy director at Reprieve, said: “As the Prime Minister May makes ever greater overtures towards the Saudi government, the kingdom continues to carry out appalling abuses – including torture, forced ‘confessions’ and death sentences for juveniles. Theresa May’s desire for closer relations with the Gulf must not cloud Britain's commitment to human rights.”

Reprieve has previously written to May about the three cases, and asked her to call on the Saudi authorities to release the three and commute their sentences. However, the British prime minister is understood not to have directly raised the cases with the Saudi authorities on her last visit to the Gulf.

McCulloch added: “The prime minister must make it absolutely clear to the Saudis that the UK condemns torture and the death penalty – and she must call for the immediate release of Ali, Dawood and Abdullah.”

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