Britain to help reform Saudi economy

Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud welcomes British Prime Minister Theresa May in Riyadh, April 5, 2017.
Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud welcomes British Prime Minister Theresa May in Riyadh, April 5, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

RIYADH (AFP) - Britain said on Wednesday (April 5) it would help Saudi Arabia to diversify its oil-dependent economy as British Prime Minister Theresa May visited the Gulf kingdom.

May and Saudi King Salman held talks focused on "bilateral relations and cooperation" as well as "regional and international developments", the official news agency SPA said.

A statement from May’s office said the two discussed several issues including security and strengthening business ties.

An earlier statement from May’s office said she would discuss with the monarch “tax and privatisation standards to help Saudi Arabia diversify its economy and become less reliant on oil”.

The Prime Minister “pointed out that security relationships between the two counties had saved many lives in the UK,” her office said.

Saudi Arabia faces a significant budget deficit with billions of dollars in debts to private firms, largely in the construction business, after a drop in global oil prices by about half since 2014.

Britain will also assist Riyadh in "building a reformed Ministry of Defence" and reviewing defence capabilities, the statement said.

May's visit to the oil-rich kingdom came as she seeks to secure investment and trade after Britain officially started a two-year countdown to leave the European Union.

The premier pitched the London bourse as a venue for the expected listing of oil giant Saudi Aramco, Bloomberg news cited an unnamed British official as saying.

May also held a private meeting with Energy Minister Khaled al-Falih, the official said.

Back home, the premier has also come under harsh criticism for her visit to the ultra-conservative kingdom.

She has faced calls at home to raise rights issues with the kingdom's leaders, primarily over Britain's arms sales to a Saudi-led military coalition battling Iran-backed rebels in Yemen since March 2015.

Saudi Arabia has bought more than US$5 billion (S$7 billion) worth of arms from the United States and Britain since then, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute think-tank says.

Rights groups have called for an end to US and British arms sales to Riyadh over the coalition's involvement in the war which has resulted in heavy civilian casualties.

More than 7,700 people have been killed in Yemen since March 2015, the United Nations says, and seven million Yemenis face starvation this year.

On Tuesday, May held talks with a string of officials including Saudi Crown Prince and Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef and Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman, who is second in line to the throne.

The British premier also met Sarah al-Suhaimi, the first woman to head the Saudi stock exchange and a Saudi investment bank, and Princess Reema bint Bandar, head of the women's section at the General Authority for Sports.

As part of its economic diversification strategy, Saudi Arabia has announced plans to increase women's participation in the workforce from 22 to 28 per cent by 2020.