LONDON, U.K. - Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman began a three-day visit to the U.K. amid protests, rallies and heavy criticism from the country’s opposition.
This is the crown prince’s first foreign tour as heir to the Saudi throne, as part of which he will also visit Cairo and New York.
On Wednesday, Salman was received by Queen Elizabeth II as he kickstarted his trip and he had lunch with her at the Buckingham Palace ahead of talks with Prime Minister Theresa May.
On Wednesday evening, the heir-to-the-throne Prince Charles is holding a dinner for the crown prince with Prince William among the guests.
Salman’s trip is being seen as an opportunity for him to project the Kingdom as a reforming, youthful society determined to assume the status of a major G20 economic power.
However, the start of his trip was marked by criticism from British opposition figures who accused him of funding extremism in the U.K.
Mohammed bin Salman is also facing accusations of committing human rights abuses domestically, and breaching international humanitarian law in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia has intervened in the Yemen war that has killed thousands of civilians and has driven the Middle East’s poorest country to the brink of famine.
Further, on Wednesday, campaigners against the war also rallied near the parliament and held a protest outside the Downing Street gates.
Meanwhile, during prime minister Theresa May’s questions, Jeremy Corbyn launched his most unbridled attack yet on Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the three-year Yemen conflict.
Corbyn said that the country was responsible for putting millions at risk of starvation.
The Labour leader said that the British military was colluding in an unlawfully conducted war and claimed that U.K. personnel were directing the Saudi military campaign from Riyadh.
Corbyn also said a humanitarian disaster was taking place and urged a ceasefire in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition has been fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
He added, “Germany has suspended arms sales to Saudi Arabia but British arms sales have sharply increased and British military advisers are directing the war. It cannot be right that her [Theresa May’s] government is colluding in what the UN says is evidence of war crimes.”
Meanwhile, Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat leader condemned ministers for rolling out the red carpet.
He slammed the government for providing the equivalent of a state visit to “a dictatorial head of a theocratic, medieval regime.”
Cable also called on the U.K. government to demand the Saudis end the “systematic bombing of civilian targets in Yemen,” which the crown prince initiated.
Meanwhile, speaking in the House of Commons the shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry accused ministers of “bowing and scraping” to the crown prince.
Thornberry said that Bin Salman was “the architect of the Saudi airstrikes and blockade in Yemen, funding jihadi groups in the Syrian civil war, ordering his guards to beat up the prime minister of Lebanon and in the eight months since he became crown prince doubling the number of executions.”
She further added, “We are supposed to ignore all that just because he is to allow Saudi women to drive, just as they can everywhere else in the world. The British government pretends to care about human rights and war crimes but when it comes to Saudi Arabia in Yemen there is nothing but a shameful silence.”
She argued that the U.K. government’s sole concern was how to plug the hole in growth and trade because of Brexit.
Retorting strongly to Thornberry’s criticism, Alistair Burt, the Middle East minister said Thornberry was not the sole holder of conscience in U.K. politics.
Burt further warned that if Thornberry was ever in government and sought a relationship with the leader of a country, who is likely to be the most powerful in the Middle East for the next decades, she might need to review some of her personal comments.
Meanwhile, a coalition of U.K. human rights groups announced that it was planning to protest against the visit outside Downing Street.
However, reports stated that to diffuse the tension, the British royal family has been deployed in an effort to secure major commercial contracts.
The move has triggered unease among Conservative MPs who think the U.K. should at least be seen as even-handed in the bitter diplomatic dispute between the Saudis and Qatar.
May too has issued a statement defending the red-carpet treatment for the crown prince.
The British Prime Minister said that the close counter-extremism alliance with the Saudis had saved hundreds of lives in Britain.
She added that U.K. pressure had led the Saudis to lift the blockade of the Houthi-held Yemeni port of Hodeidah in December.
May insisted the Saudi intervention had been backed by UN resolutions.
She further said she would raise human rights issues when she sat down with Salman.
She added in a statement, “The link that we have with Saudi Arabia is historic, it is an important one and it has saved the lives of potentially hundreds of people in this country.”
May said the task of the U.K. was to aid the reforms under way in the country, including those affecting women’s rights.
Further, referencing alleged British collusion in the Yemen civil war, May said, “We have encouraged the Saudi government to ensure that when there are allegations that activity has taken place which is not in line with international humanitarian law they investigate that, they learn the lessons from it.”
She pointed out that the most important finding of the unpublished Home Office report into funding of extremism in the U.K. was that “contrary to popular conception, Islamist extremists draw most of their financial support from domestic and not overseas sources.”
Meanwhile, the local police are said to have arrested one man for throwing an egg near Downing Street, when the Saudi Crown Prince met May there.