British PM Theresa May in Riyadh after surprise Baghdad visit

Theresa May meeting King Salman in Riyadh, Nov 29, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

RIYADH (AFP) - British Prime Minister Theresa May landed in Riyadh on Wednesday (Nov 29) for talks with the Saudi king and crown prince, with Yemen's brewing humanitarian crisis and the kingdom's sweeping reforms topping her agenda.

May flew in to the Saudi capital on the second leg of her Middle East tour, following a surprise visit to Baghdad where she met her Iraqi counterpart Haider al-Abadi and hailed recent military gains against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group.

The official Saudi Press Agency confirmed her arrival in Riyadh, where the British leader promised to raise concerns over the Yemen crisis during meetings with King Salman and the powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Saudi Arabia is Britain's largest trading partner in the Middle East, and London has signed off on more than £3.3 billion (S$5.9 billion) worth of arms sales to Riyadh since March 2015.

During that time a Saudi-led coalition has embarked on a bombing campaign in Yemen that has been condemned for contributing to a humanitarian disaster.

The war has killed some 8,600 people, while a further 2,000 have died of cholera.

May insisted that she would send a clear message to the Saudi leadership.

"I'm very concerned about the humanitarian crisis that has developed in Yemen, particularly most recently," May said in comments from Iraq to the BBC.

"That's why the strong message I will be giving to Saudi Arabia tonight is that we want to see Hodeida port opened for humanitarian and commercial access.

"That's important. I think the international community is concerned about the humanitarian crisis in Yemen."


Earlier this month, the coalition battling Shi'ite Huthi rebels a blockade on Yemen's ports and airports in response to a missile fired by the Iran-backed rebels that was intercepted near Riyadh airport.

It eased the blockade allowing a UN plane carrying vaccines to land Saturday in rebel-held Sanaa and on Sunday a vessel carrying wheat docked at Saleef Red Sea port, also in the Huthis' hands.

But little aid has entered through the Red Sea port of Hodeida, the main conduit for UN-supervised deliveries of food and medicine.

Separately, during talks in Riyadh, May is expected to express Britain's support for Prince Mohammed's ambitious reform drive, which include a historic decision allowing women to drive from next June.

May left London late Tuesday for a three-day visit to the Middle East in a bid to bolster regional ties.

May's visit to Iraq came as government forces backed by an international coalition have ousted ISIS from swathes of the country it controlled since 2014 - and focus in the West now centres on preventing returning militants carrying out attacks.

Britain, which took part in the US-led Iraq invasion of 2003 which toppled the regime of dictator Saddam Hussein, has played a key role in the coalition battling ISIS.

The British leader will be in Jordan on Thursday on the final leg of her tour for meetings with King Abdullah II and Prime Minister Hani Mulki.

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