May Eyes the ‘Long Term’ With Saudis, Security and Trade First

  • Premier is on three-day visit to Jordan and Saudi Arabia
  • Lawmakers have urged U.K. to suspend arms sales to kingdom

Theresa May, U.K. prime minister, center, looks on as King Abdullah II of Jordan, center right, speaks during a visit to a Jordanian Army Base in Zarqqa, Jordan, on Monday, April 3, 2017. May began a visit to Jordan and Saudi Arabia on Monday, with the goal of building security and commercial ties.

Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Prime Minister Theresa May extolled the importance of trade and security ties with Saudi Arabia, brushing aside calls in the U.K. 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.

Theresa May arrives in Riyadh, April 4.

Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

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 defense, 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 U.K.’s most important arms clients with 3.3 billion pounds ($4.1 billion) spent on fighter jets and other kinds of military equipment. Saudi intelligence services also work closely with their U.K. counterparts. These ties have led British prime ministers to tread carefully when discussing the country’s human rights record.

Private Words

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, channeling 103 million pounds to the country.

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 160 million pounds toward food, vaccinations, shelter and health care, as well as schooling and infrastructure.

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