Prime Minister Theresa May extolled the importance of trade and security ties with Saudi Arabia, brushing aside calls in the UK to suspend arms sales to the kingdom.
In a visit to Jordan and then the Saudi capital, May is seeking to bolster trade ties with influential players in the Middle East, most notably the House of Saud. Back home, lawmakers have urged her to stop selling weapons pending a probe into Saudi Arabia’s military strikes in Yemen.
Britain’s relationships with both countries “are long term and historical,’’ May told reporters on Monday on the plane to Amman. “They’re important for us in terms of security, they’re important for us in terms of defence, and yes in terms of trade. But as I said when I came to the Gulf at the end of last year, Gulf security is our security; Gulf prosperity is our prosperity.”
The Saudi royal family is one of the UK’s most important arms clients with $4.1 billion spent on fighter jets and other kinds of military equipment. Saudi intelligence services also work closely with their UK counterparts. These ties have led British prime ministers to tread carefully when discussing the country’s human rights record.
Back in December, May slapped down Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson after he was recorded accusing the Saudis of “puppeteering and playing proxy wars” in the Middle East.
Any concerns she may have will be raised privately. May said she’ll discuss the conflict and resulting humanitarian conflict in Yemen with Saudi leaders, pointing out that Britain was the fourth-biggest donor of humanitarian aid to Yemen last year, channelling $128 million to the country.
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Asked about a dearth of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, she said she’s raised the issue in the past.
“I’ve talked to the Saudis on a number of occasions now and I raise issues of this sort. I think we have already seen some changes,” May said, adding she’ll be meeting with a female Saudi minister.
“I’ll be meeting with her and talking to her about the role that she plays, and generally we do encourage people to look at a woman’s role in society.”
During her stop in Jordan, home to one of the biggest populations of Syrian refugees, May stuck to her approach that it is better to fund programs that encourage Syrians fleeing civil war to stay in the Middle East. She will announce an additional $200 million toward food, vaccinations, shelter and health care, as well as schooling and infrastructure.