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Britain to help reform Saudi economy

LONDON: Britain said Wednesday it would help Saudi Arabia to diversify its oil-dependent economy as British Prime Minister Theresa May visited the Gulf kingdom.

May and Saudi King Salman would discuss “tax and privatisation standards to help Saudi Arabia diversify its economy and become less reliant on oil”, a statement released by her office said.

Saudi Arabia faces a significant budget deficit with billions of dollars in debts to private firms, largely in the construction business, after a drop in global oil prices by about half since 2014.

Britain will also assist Riyadh in “building a reformed Ministry of Defence” and reviewing defence capabilities, the statement said.

May is visiting the oil-rich kingdom as she seeks to secure investment and trade after Britain officially started a two-year countdown to leave the European Union.

But May has also come under harsh criticism for her visit to the ultra-conservative kingdom.

She has faced calls at home to raise rights issues with the kingdom’s leaders, primarily over Britain’s arms sales to a Saudi-led military coalition battling Iran-backed rebels in Yemen since March 2015.

Saudi Arabia has bought more than $5 billion (4.7 billion euros) worth of arms from the United States and Britain since then, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute think tank says.

Rights groups have called for an end to US and British arms sales to Riyadh over the coalition’s involvement in the war.

More than 7,700 people have been killed in Yemen since March 2015, the United Nations says, and seven million Yemenis face starvation this year.

May on Tuesday held talks with a string of officials including Saudi Crown Prince and Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef and Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman, who is second in line to the throne, as well as the country’s oil and energy minister.

The British premier also met Sarah al-Suhaimi, the first woman to head the Saudi stock exchange and a Saudi investment bank, and Princess Reema bint Bandar, head of the women’s section at the General Authority for Sports.

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