Theresa May will decline to discuss future trade with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, when the pair meet face-to-face at the G20 summit. The prime minister will instead choose to focus on the killing of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and efforts towards a ceasefire in Yemen.May must navigate a diplomatic minefield at…
Theresa May will decline to discuss future trade with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, when the pair meet face-to-face at the G20 summit. The prime minister will instead choose to focus on the killing of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and efforts towards a ceasefire in Yemen.
May must navigate a diplomatic minefield at their first meeting since the growing toll of the war in Yemen and the murder of the Washington Post columnist in Istanbul led to a deterioration in UK-Saudi relations.
It was Downing Street’s intention for the meeting to focus entirely on these issues, rather than trade, a senior UK official said, in a sign of how seriously May viewed the Yemen war and the journalist’s death.
However, she has so far expressed no opinion on the crown prince’s prior knowledge of Khashoggi’s killing and a UK government official suggested she would not confront that aspect of his death. The Foreign Office was more likely to want Number 10 to spend its political capital on trying to end the war in Yemen.
Ahead of her meeting with the crown prince in Buenos Aires on Friday, May described Khashoggi’s murder as “terrible” and said the international community would scrutinise the Saudi investigation to ensure it was credible and transparent.
“I am going to speak to the crown prince of Saudi Arabia but it is the relationship we have with Saudi Arabia that enables me to sit down with him and be robust on our views,” May told reporters. Asked if she would confront the Saudi crown prince on his involvement, a UK government official said: “Our focus is on the investigation.”
Talks may include regional security but trade was “not the focus today,” the official said.
UK officials defended May’s decision to engage with Bin Salman at the G20 summit. During the photo of world leaders at the summit’s opening, various western leaders appeared to pointedly avoid the crown prince. In contrast, Bin Salman clasped hands with Russia’s Vladmir Putin as the two leaders greeted each other with beaming smiles.
“It is important we engage and we can deliver these messages in person,” the UK official said, citing security as a specific pillar of the relationship. “It’s important we are able to set out expectations in abiding by human rights rules and also transparency and accountability. I would not want to link the issues but the relationship we have with Saudi Arabia is something that provides for security in the UK.”
May will meet Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for a separate bilateral meeting at the G20 on Saturday, and Downing Street officials said they expected them to discuss the progress of the Turkish investigation.
Turkey has let UK intelligence hear the tape of Khashoggi’s killing and has repeatedly pressed the Saudis to cooperate by telling them where Khashoggi’s remains were.
Ankara will hope that May would raise the issue of Saudi cooperation over the body, during her meeting with Bin Salman. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, told Bin Salman on Friday that Europe would insist on international experts being part of the investigation into the murder.
On Saturday, May was also due to meet the leaders of Australia, Japan, Chile and Canada, but not Putin nor the US president, Donald Trump.
The danger for May, already at odds with the US over the Iran nuclear deal, would be that she could find herself without Washington’s support in confronting not only the crown prince over the Khashoggi killing, but also on how to end the war in Yemen.
Turkey, beginning to run out of new revelations about the murder, has also been pressing for the international community to back a UN-led investigation into the journalist’s death, an issue that may be discussed by European leaders in a side meeting at the summit.
May also said she would tell the Saudi crown prince there was an opportunity now to find a solution to the conflict in Yemen.
“I will be encouraging all parties, including the Saudi Arabians, to ensure that they sit down at the upcoming UN-led talks in Stockholm in the coming days and weeks and find a way through this, find a political solution for a stable future for Yemen,” she said.
Saudi Arabia is among a group of countries blocking a UK-sponsored resolution at the United Nations. It has been designed to bring about a ceasefire in Yemen ahead of peace talks due to start next week between the Saudi-backed government and Houthi rebel fighters.
Emily Thornberry MP, shadow foreign secretary, said: “When she sits down with crown prince bin Salman, Theresa May has a moral duty to demand the truth about Jamal Khashoggi.
“But even more urgently and importantly, she must demand that the crown prince stops the bombardment of Hodeidah, allows food and medicine to reach the 14 million Yemenis facing starvation, and lifts his objections to the UK’s draft United Nations resolution, which would enforce those demands. Furthermore, she must tell him that British arms will no longer flow to Saudi Arabia to continue the barbaric bombardment of Yemen.
“If she does all those things, then she is right to meet him, but if not, then it is a national disgrace.”