UK’s Hunt holds Saudi talks on Yemen conflict, rights

Riyadh:British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said he held talks Saturday with his Saudi counterpart in Riyadh that focused on human rights issues, including journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder and the jailing of women activists in the kingdom.

Hunt also discussed a fragile truce in the flashpoint Yemeni city of Hodeida with the Saudi foreign minister of state Adel al-Jubeir and Yemen’s President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi, who is based in Riyadh.

Hunt’s visit came after he failed last month to convince Germany to end its ban on arms exports to Saudi Arabia, which he said was hurting Europe’s defence industry and diminishing its influence in efforts to end the Yemen conflict.

“Important discussion with @AdelAljubeir about human rights reforms and current issues including Khashoggi, women activists,” Hunt said on Twitter, without offering any details.

The murder of Khashoggi, a Saudi insider-turned-critic, at the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate last October sparked global uproar and tarnished the reputation of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The killing has weakened the kingdom’s diplomatic position and hurt its strategic relations with Western allies, even though it strongly denies that the crown prince was involved.

Hunt arrived just a day after Saudi Arabia announced that it will put jailed women activists on trial after holding them for nearly a year without charge, prompting strong condemnation from rights groups.

Some of those detained have allegedly faced torture and sexual harassment during interrogation, following their arrest in May last year in a sweeping crackdown on campaigners.

– ‘Lack of trust’ –
Hunt also met Saudi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Assaf on his Gulf tour, which includes stopovers in Oman and the United Arab Emirates.

“Our strategic partnership (with) Saudi Arabia helps us to keep the UK safe, to make progress on diplomatic priorities like Yemen, and to discuss frankly issues of concern,” Hunt said.

Hunt complained, however, about slow implementation of a ceasefire deal in rebel-held Hodeida, which was agreed in Sweden in December between Yemen’s Saudi-backed government and Huthi rebels.

The deal was hailed as Yemen’s best chance so far to end the four-year conflict, but it appears to be hanging by a thread with breaches reported by both warring parties.

“There is a lack of trust and it is taking too long to implement the Stockholm (deal) but no one has a better plan so we need to get going and end the crisis,” Hunt tweeted after meeting President Hadi.

“Progress on Stockholm overdue and it is vital for Hodeida to be cleared of militia urgently to allow humanitarian corridor,” he added later.

It was unclear whether Berlin’s decision to suspend arms exports to Saudi Arabia after Khashoggi’s murder –- which cast a fresh spotlight on the kingdom’s bombing campaign in Yemen -– was discussed during Hunt’s visit.

Hunt reportedly urged Germany last month to exempt major European defence projects like Eurofighter or Tornado jets, which contain German parts, from its Saudi weapons embargo.

But Berlin stood firm on its decision to uphold the embargo.