By Stephen Kalin
RIYADH (Reuters) – British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, criticized by some at home for British arms sales to Saudi Arabia, said on Thursday he was hopeful for a de-escalation this year in Yemen’s five-year-old civil war, in which London backs the Saudi-led coalition.
The United Nations has been trying to re-launch political negotiations and Saudi Arabia began informal talks with the Iran-backed Houthi movement last September. Riyadh had significantly reduced its air strikes while the Houthis halted missile and drone attacks on the kingdom, but a spike in violence since January shattered the calm.
Asked about the chances of getting back on track, Raab said: “I certainly hope so. I think that should be the aim and I think with political will galvanized on all sides, 2020 could be a year of change for Yemen.”
He spoke to Reuters in the Saudi capital Riyadh after meeting Yemen’s president at the end of a Middle East tour that also included Turkey and Oman.
In meetings with the Saudi king, foreign minister and deputy defense minister, Raab also discussed trade, Saudi Arabia’s presidency of the G20 and Britain’s hosting of the COP26 climate summit.
He said he had raised human rights issues, including the detention of women’s rights activists and the 2018 killing of prominent journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
The killing by Saudi agents has strained Saudi Arabia’s ties with the West and battered the image abroad of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom some Western governments believe ordered the hit. Prince Mohammed has denied that but said he ultimately bears responsibility for the killing.
Britain has said Saudi Arabia needed to hold to account those responsible for the murder and take action to build confidence that such an event would not recur.
In December, a Saudi court sentenced five people to death and three to jail over the murder, but a U.N. investigator accused Riyadh of making a “mockery” of justice by exonerating senior figures who may have ordered the killing.
“We had exactly the reassurances you described – this will never happen and never be repeated again,” Raab said.
“And the sense that I get is of genuine will to improve the position in Saudi Arabia and of course to free us up to talk about all the positives in the relationship that we have.”
(Reporting by Stephen Kalin; editing by Nick Macfie)