RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — British Prime Minister Theresa May arrived in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday to strengthen bilateral ties and increase trade with the largest Arab economy as it continues to spend heavily on defense and an ongoing war in Yemen.
The prime minister arrived in the OPEC powerhouse following talks in the neighboring kingdom of Jordan.
The British government said May will emphasize her country’s close partnership with Saudi Arabia, including on counterterrorism cooperation. Before traveling to Saudi Arabia, May noted that intelligence received in the past from Saudi Arabia saved potentially hundreds of lives in the UK.
She kicked off her Riyadh visit by meeting with Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism czar, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who is also Interior Minister overseeing a vast array of security forces. The official Saudi Press Agency said the two discussed regional conflicts and “joint cooperation to combat extremism and fight terrorism.”
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Drawing mixed reactions on social media, British Prime Minister Theresa May did not wear a headscarf during her visit as most Saudi women do. Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and First Lady Michelle Obama also declined to wear headscarves during visits to the country.
Ahead of her visit to Saudi Arabia, May pointed to the “immense potential for Saudi investment to provide a boost to the British economy.” Energy-rich countries in the Gulf have made high-profile purchases in and around London in recent years, including several iconic properties.
Saudi Arabia, specifically, is Britain’s largest Mideast trading partner, with British exports of goods and services to the kingdom topping 6.5 billion pounds ($8.1 billion) in 2015.
Those exports include arms sales, which have drawn criticism from activists who say May should do more to pressure Saudi Arabia on its human rights record.
Saudi Arabia is among the world’s largest spenders on defense and one of the top buyers of UK defense equipment.
Numerous rights groups have called on the UK, as well as the U.S. and France, to halt the sale of weapons and military equipment being used by Saudi Arabia in its war in Yemen.
A Saudi-led coalition has been bombing Iranian allied rebels known as Houthis for two years, but has not been able to seize the capital and other territories under Houthi control.
The UK backs the coalition with technical support, precision-guided bombs and intelligence sharing.
The UK-based Campaign Against Arms Trade says the British government has licensed over 3.3 billion pounds ($4.1 billion) worth of arms to Saudi Arabia since March 2015, when Saudi Arabia began its bombing campaign in Yemen. This includes licenses for aircraft, helicopters, drones, grenades, bombs, missiles, tanks and armored vehicles.
The war has killed at least 4,770 civilians and wounded more than 8,200 according to the U.N. office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The figure reflects those deaths and injuries that the U.N. Human Rights Office has managed to corroborate and confirm to be civilians.
The U.N. says in March alone, more than 100 civilians were killed, mostly by airstrikes and shelling by Saudi coalition warships. Additionally, some 21 million Yemenis, roughly 82 percent of the population, are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance.
On Sunday, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson expressed his regret to Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after an activist in London tried to make a citizen’s arrest on a prominent Saudi general who frequently appears in the media to defend the kingdom’s war in Yemen.
Also, UK-based human rights organization Reprieve has called on May to raise the case of three prisoners arrested as minors in 2012 and who were sentenced to death on charges related to Arab Spring-style protests among minority Shiites demanding greater rights.
Batrawy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.