David Cameron arrived for talks in Saudi Arabia yesterday as an influential group of MPs raised questions over UK arms deals with the country.
The Prime Minister was due to meet King Abdullah at his Riyadh palace for discussions that Downing Street hopes will “broaden and deepen” the UK-Saudi relationship.
Saudi Arabia is the UK’s biggest trading partner in the Middle East with bilateral trade worth £15bn a year and Saudi investment in the UK worth more than £62bn.
But Mr Cameron’s first visit to the nation since becoming premier came as the Committees on Arms Export Controls published details of questions it has raised with the Government over the licensing for a range of equipment.
Export permission was granted for bomb equipment, components for military combat vehicles and helicopters, weapon sights and communications technology.
MPs questioned why, given the unrest in Saudi Arabia early last year, licences had not been revoked as part of the Government’s review of arms sales to the Middle East and North Africa.
They asked: “Why does the UK believe that the assurances relating to end-use will not be breached?”
The Government sees strong relations with the Saudis as vital to advancing the UK’s interests in the region on a range of issues including energy security, counter-terrorism and political reform.
Meanwhile, Foreign Secretary William Hague has warned that Britain “must respect” the choices made by voters in countries that have ousted repressive regimes, even if they are considered extremist by the West.
In a newspaper article yesterday, he said: “It is true that parties drawing their inspiration from Islam have done better at the polls than secular parties and there are legitimate concerns about what this will mean.
“We must respect these choices while upholding our own principles of human rights and freedom and urging the highest standards.Trying to pick winners would fatally undermine faith in our intentions and our support for democracy. In standing up for the right of peoples to choose their own representatives at the ballot box, we have to accept their choices and work with the governments they elect.”
As the Prime Minister met King Abdullah, reports emerged of clashes between protesters and security forces in the east of the desert kingdom that left one man dead. Troops fired on demonstrators throwing rocks on Thursday night in the oil-rich Qatif province, according to Shiites.
The Interior Ministry said security forces returned fire after coming under attack when their patrol vehicle was hit by a firebomb.
Amnesty International called on Mr Cameron to be “completely frank and firm” with King Abdullah about human rights concerns in the country.
UK Campaigns Director Tim Hancock said: “If Samantha Cameron were on this visit she would be unable to drive or move around freely without risk of arrest.”