February 28, 2018 / 12:44 PM / 21 days ago

UK's Johnson praises Saudi reforms, pre-empting critics of crown prince visit

LONDON, Feb 28 (Reuters) - British foreign minister Boris Johnson praised social reforms in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, seeking to neutralise any potential criticism over human rights and the war in Yemen ahead of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to London next week.

Prince Mohammed will arrive in London on March 7 for talks with British Prime Minister Theresa May and other senior ministers, his first trip to Britain since being named heir to the throne last summer when he effectively took over running the country.

Despite him enacting a programme of social reforms, his visit is expected to spark protests over wider rights issues, including Saudi Arabia’s role in Yemen, where more than 10,000 people have been killed in a conflict since 2015.

But Johnson said Prince Mohammed deserved support for overturning a ban on women driving, relaxing gender segregation and setting a target to get more women into the Saudi workforce.

“If you are inclined to dismiss these advances, then I will respectfully suggest that you are making a profound mistake,” he wrote in an article for the Times newspaper.

“Change does not come easily in Saudi Arabia. In a matter of a few months, genuine reform has taken place after decades of stasis.”

Describing Saudi Arabia as one of Britain’s “oldest friends in the region”, Johnson highlighted the importance of defence cooperation both to counter Islamic State militants and as a diplomatic counterweight to Iran’s Middle East influence.

Britain has openly sought to woo Saudi Arabia ahead of the expected stock market listing of state oil company Saudi Aramco, which could be the largest such offering in history. Both May and U.S. President Donald Trump want the potentially lucrative listing to take place on their stock exchanges.

But, the government’s support for Prince Mohammed has been criticised by rights groups and opposition lawmakers - particularly over the licensing of 4.6 billion pounds ($6.4 billion) worth of arms sales to Saudi Arabia since the start of the Yemen conflict.

London says it has strict controls on arms sales, and on Tuesday May said she would be discussing the conflict and humanitarian situation in Yemen “frankly and constructively” with Prince Mohammed. ($1 = 0.7209 pounds) (Reporting by William James Editing by Hugh Lawson)

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