Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was welcomed by Queen Elizabeth II — and criticized by protesters against the war in Yemen — as he began a three-day visit to Britain on Wednesday.
Britain is rolling out the red carpet for Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, who had lunch with the queen at Buckingham Palace and was due to dine with Prince Charles and Prince William.
He met with Prime Minister Theresa May, who said she would raise concerns about human rights during talks at 10 Downing St.
Greeting the crown prince on the doorstep, May praised the reforms he has started since he became heir apparent to King Salman last year.
“We want to work together to explore ways we can support the kingdom of Saudi Arabia to progress and intensify these reforms,” May said. “We will also discuss how we can enhance our co-operation in tackling international challenges, including the conflict and humanitarian crisis in Yemen.”
Critics say Britain has been slow to condemn rights abuses by Saudi Arabia, a key regional ally and major purchaser of U.K.-made weapons.
A Saudi-led coalition has been battling Iran-allied rebels in Yemen since 2015 in a war that has killed more than 10,000 people and driven the Arab world’s poorest country to the brink of famine. The kingdom faces wide international criticism for its airstrikes killing civilians and striking markets, hospitals and other civilian targets.
Campaigners against the war rallied near Parliament and held a protest outside the gates of Downing St.
Asked by Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn whether she would condemn Saudi Arabia’s “shocking abuse of human rights,” May defended Britain’s close ties with the authoritarian kingdom.
“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 in the House of Commons.
“We’re all concerned about the appalling humanitarian situation in Yemen,” May said, adding: “I will be raising concerns about human rights when I meet him.”
The 32-year-old crown prince has shaken up his deeply conservative country, moving to consolidate power by sidelining rivals and stepping up Saudi Arabia’s rivalry with Iran. He has also has pushed through a number of dramatic social reforms, including allowing women to drive and lifting a ban on movie theaters.
Critics say the modernization measures mask continuing rights abuses. Human rights charity Reprieve says the number of executions in Saudi Arabia has doubled since the crown prince took charge.
The three-day visit is also due to include lunch with May on Thursday at the prime minister’s rural retreat, Chequers, and talks with Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson.