Theresa May flies to Middle East as she seeks 'bold, confident future' for post-Brexit Britain

Gordon Rayner
British Prime Minister Theresa May - EPA

Theresa May will tomorrow embark on a highly symbolic trade and security mission to the Middle East as part of her plan for a “bold, confident future” for post-Brexit Britain.

Just five days after she invoked Article 50 to begin the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, the Prime Minister will send out a clear message to Europe - and to the British public - that ministers are already “seizing the opportunities ahead” for trade with the rest of the world.

Europe’s most powerful leaders have made it clear to Mrs May that they will not discuss a new trade deal with Britain until she agrees the terms of the so-called “divorce bill” for leaving the EU.

Hardliners have even said there will be no trade talks until Britain quits the EU in 2019.

Mrs May has responded by dispatching ministers all over the globe during the Easter recess. Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, will visit India with the Bank of England governor Mark Carney, while the International Trade Secretary Liam Fox will tour other Asian countries.

Mrs May will fly to Jordan today before a two-day visit to Saudi Arabia starting tomorrow.

People fly kites decorated with the Jordanian national flag during an event celebrating spring at the Citadel in Amman, Jordan Credit: MUHAMMAD HAMED

Downing Street said the Prime Minister will “explore ways of boosting our already strong” trade links with the two countries.

Saudi Arabia is the UK’s biggest trading partner in the Middle East, with £6.6bn of goods and services exported in 2015.

Mrs May said yesterday: “There is so much we can do together on trade, with immense potential for Saudi investment to provide a boost to the British economy.”

Saudi Arabia's King Salman  Credit: Yoan Valat/AP

Both Saudi Arabia and Jordan have important defence contracts with British companies, and Mrs May is expected to agree new support for the Royal Jordanian Air Force when she arrives in Amman today.

Supporting Jordan and Saudi Arabia’s armed forces will help them to “strike at the heart of Daesh” - also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), Downing Street said.

In comments ahead of the visit, Mrs May repeatedly linked security and trade, just as she did in her Article 50 letter to the EU Council President Donald Tusk.

Brexit | The European Union’s core negotiation principles

Mrs May said: “As the United Kingdom leaves the EU, we are determined to forge a bold, confident future for ourselves in the world. 

“We must look at the challenges that we, and future generations, will face and build stronger partnerships with countries that will be vital to both our security and our prosperity.”

She said it was “clearly in the UK’s security and prosperity interests to support Jordan and Saudi Arabia” in tackling the threat from Isil and creating stability in the region. Tackling terrorism in the two countries will also “help keep British people safe”, she said.

European Council president Donald Tusk holds the letter giving Britain's official notice under Article 50  Credit: EPA/OLIVIER HOSLET

Downing Street said part of the Prime Minister’s message to the two countries would be that “the tragic attack in Westminster showed only too starkly that terrorism is an evil facing us all and we must come together to fight it”.

Saudi Arabia’s status as a source of terrorism was reflected in the Government’s decision to include it in a list of countries subject to a ban on passengers carrying laptops, iPads and other electronic devices in their hand luggage, because of the danger of them being used to smuggle bombs on board.

As well as discussing trade and counter-terrorism, the Prime Minister will discuss ways in which the UK can further help Jordan to cope with the huge number of refugees from the Syrian conflict that are living in camps in the country.

The visit is likely to prompt criticism from human rights campaigners, who have long argued that Britain turns a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s poor record on human rights in return for its multi-billion pound investments.

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