Theresa May declined to discuss trade with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, when the pair met face-to-face at the G20 summit, raising instead the conflict in Yemen and the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.
May’s spokesman said that she stressed the need for Saudi Arabia to “take action to build confidence that such a deplorable incident could not happen again” when speaking about the murder of the journalist at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
May had to navigate a diplomatic minefield at their first meeting since the growing toll of the war in Yemen and the murder of the Washington Post columnist led to a deterioration in UK-Saudi relations.
It was Downing Street’s intention for the meeting to focus entirely on these issues, rather than trade, a senior UK official said. That was a mark of how seriously May was treating the issues of the Yemen war and the Khashoggi killing, given how the British government has been prioritising a post-Brexit trade offensive.
May has publicly expressed no opinion on the crown prince’s prior knowledge of Khashoggi’s killing and a UK government official suggested she would not directly confront that aspect of his death, though she impressed upon the crown prince the need to identify the individuals responsible for all stages leading up to the killing.
“She encouraged the crown prince to ensure that Saudi Arabia cooperated fully with the Turkish authorities and worked to bring both [the Turkish and Saudi] investigations to an acceptable close,” said her spokesman. “To ensure full accountability, there needed to be full transparency about exactly what had happened and who was responsible.”
Ahead of her meeting with the crown prince in Buenos Aires on Friday, May described Khashoggi’s murder as “terrible” and said the international community would scrutinise the Saudi investigation to ensure it was credible and transparent.
“I am going to speak to the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, but it is the relationship we have with Saudi Arabia that enables me to sit down with him and be robust on our views,” May told reporters.
Trade was “not the focus today,” a UK government official said, though the pair touched on regional security and Iran.
UK officials defended May’s decision to engage with Bin Salman at the G20 summit. During the photo session for world leaders at the summit’s opening, various western leaders appeared to pointedly avoid the crown prince. In contrast, Bin Salman clasped hands with Russia’s Vladmir Putin as the two leaders greeted each other with beaming smiles.
“It is important we engage and we can deliver these messages in person,” the UK official said, citing security as a specific pillar of the relationship. “It’s important we are able to set out expectations in abiding by human rights rules and also transparency and accountability. I would not want to link the issues, but the relationship we have with Saudi Arabia is something that provides for security in the UK.”
May will meet Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for a separate bilateral meeting at the G20 on Saturday, and Downing Street officials said they expected them to discuss the progress of the Turkish investigation.
Turkey has let UK intelligence hear the tape of Khashoggi’s killing and has repeatedly pressed the Saudis to cooperate by telling it where Khashoggi’s remains are.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, told Bin Salman on Friday that Europe would insist on international experts being part of the investigation into the murder.
On Saturday, May was also due to meet the leaders of Australia, Japan, Chile and Canada, but not Putin nor the US president, Donald Trump.
The danger for May, already at odds with the US over the Iran nuclear deal, would be that she could find herself without Washington’s support in confronting not only the crown prince over the Khashoggi killing, but also on how to end the war in Yemen.
Turkey, beginning to run out of new revelations about the murder, has also been pressing for the international community to back a UN-led investigation into the journalist’s death, an issue that may be discussed by European leaders in a side meeting at the summit.
Before the meeting, May also said she would tell the Saudi crown prince there was an opportunity now to find a solution to the conflict in Yemen. “I will be encouraging all parties, including the Saudi Arabians, to ensure that they sit down at the upcoming UN-led talks in Stockholm in the coming days and weeks and find a way through this, find a political solution for a stable future for Yemen,” she said.
Emily Thornberry MP, the shadow foreign secretary, said: “When she sits down with Crown Prince Bin Salman, Theresa May has a moral duty to demand the truth about Jamal Khashoggi.
“But even more urgently and importantly, she must demand that the crown prince stops the bombardment of Hodeidah, allows food and medicine to reach the 14 million Yemenis facing starvation, and lifts his objections to the UK’s draft United Nations resolution, which would enforce those demands. Furthermore, she must tell him that British arms will no longer flow to Saudi Arabia to continue the barbaric bombardment of Yemen.
“If she does all those things, then she is right to meet him, but if not, then it is a national disgrace.”
Saudi Arabia is among a group of countries blocking a UK-sponsored resolution at the United Nations. It has been designed to bring about a ceasefire in Yemen ahead of peace talks due to start next week between the Saudi-backed government and Houthi rebel fighters.
In a letter to the Guardian, the UAE ambassador to the UN, Lana Nusseibeh, described the resolution as “ill-timed”. “The draft created incentives for the Houthis to once again spoil the political process and failed to address factors fuelling the conflict, including well-documented Iranian violations of the UN arms embargo,” she said.
It was not clear if the blockage over the resolution would lead to the postponement or breakdown of the UN talks due to start in Stockholm next week, the first serious talks since 2016.
• This article was amended on 3 December 2018. An earlier version referred to Jamal Khashoggi as having been murdered in the Saudi embassy; the killing took place in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.