The Foreign Secretary was set to deliver “tough” messages to Riyadh over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the Yemen war.
In a sign of the sensitivities of the talks, Britain sent the Foreign Office’s top mandarin, Sir Simon McDonald, to lay the ground for the Foreign Secretary’s visit.
The unusual move highlights the complexities of the relationship between the UK and the desert kingdom which has been strained by the brutal murder of Mr Khashoggi by a 15-man hit squad at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Britain has a multi-billion-pound arms trade with Saudi Arabia.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman yesterday and reiterated Washington’s call for “a cessation of hostilities” in Yemen and for all parties to negotiate a peaceful solution.
Street battles raged yesterday in residential areas of Yemen’s main port of Hodeidah as Houthi insurgents tried to repel forces backed by a Saudi-led coalition. Residents said they saw bodies of seven civilians killed in clashes in southern suburbs, with both sides using mortar shells, anti-aircraft guns and assault rifles in the fight for the city which is key to delivering aid for millions of Yemenis.
But this morning the fighting died down. Lise Grande, the United Nations humanitarian co-ordinator, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “In the last few hours, it seems that the shelling, the strafing and the bombing has stopped. We’re not sure about the implications of this but it’s very welcome.”
Mr Hunt stressed that the human cost of the Yemen conflict was “incalculable” with thousands killed, millions displaced and the threat of famine.
“We are witnessing a man-made humanitarian catastrophe on our watch,” he said, calling for a ceasefire and a negotiated solution.
After the killing of Mr Khashoggi on October 2, America and Britain have increased pressure on Riyadh to bring the Yemen war to an end, with Mr Hunt also stressing the need for the Saudi authorities to deliver “justice for his family and the watching world”.
Mr Hunt is the first British minister to visit Saudi Arabia since the murder.
He said: “The international community remain united in horror and outrage at the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi one month ago. It is clearly unacceptable that the full circumstances behind his murder still remain unclear. We encourage the Saudi authorities to co-operate fully with the Turkish investigation into his death.”
Riyadh has denied that the crown prince ordered the killing.
The murder is seen in Whitehall as an opportunity to correct some of the more “impulsive” behaviour by the kingdom’s authoritarian rulers rather pushing for action that could destabilise it and the wider region.
The United Nations backed the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen in 2015 to restore the internationally recognised government ousted by the Iranian-aligned Houthi movement, which controls the most populated areas of Yemen including the capital Sanaa. But thousands of civilians are thought to have died in bombings by Saudi-led forces.