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Wed 31 Oct 2007 01:19 AM

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Protests, political controversy mar Saudi King visit

Controversy in UK continues over BAE arms deal and human rights record.

The British and Saudi monarchs spoke warmly about each other's countries at a formal banquet in London on Tuesday, but a state visit by Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah drew protests and political controversy in Britain.

Protesters calling for the reopening of a corruption inquiry into a multi-billion dollar arms deal jeered at Abdullah as he rode in a gilded carriage. Britain's third party, the Liberal Democrats, boycotted official events over human rights.

"The relationship between our two kingdoms is one of mutual benefit, learning and understanding. So, King Abdullah, custodian of the two holy mosques, I warmly welcome you to this country," Elizabeth said in a speech at the banquet in Buckingham Palace, her London residence.

Under British constitutional rules, her speech would have been written for her by the government, reflecting its public emphasis on warm ties with Riyadh.

Abdullah said: "I would like to highlight the sense of tolerance that the British people have. The British people are tolerant of all ethnicities, religions and colours."

The banquet was attended by Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the leader of Britain's main opposition Conservatives, David Cameron. But the Liberal Democrats' acting leader Vince Cable said he boycotted it because of Saudi Arabia's human rights record and allegations of corrupt arms deals.

The visit got off to an awkward start on Monday when Abdullah said in an interview with the BBC that Britain had failed to follow up leads passed on by Saudi intelligence which could have prevented bomb attacks on London transport in 2005.

“We have sent information to Great Britain before the terrorist attacks in Britain but unfortunately no action was taken. And it may have been able maybe to avert the tragedy” he said.

The Foreign Office categorically denied the claims.

Scores of protesters shouted "murderers", "torturers", and "shame on you" at Abdullah as he passed by in a gilded horse-drawn coach on the second day of his visit.

The Guardian newspaper said "Without even a show of harmony, Britain is treating its Saudi visitors to gilded carriages and a royal banquet not because of any real respect, but because of their oil wealth and strategic position."

Abdullah reviewed a military guard of honour at a colourful welcoming ceremony before joining Elizabeth for a state carriage procession to Buckingham Palace, watched by crowds of tourists.

Protesters said hundreds of people took part in the demonstration but police put the number at 40 to 50.

Protester Ian Pocock, 30, held a sign saying "Put human rights before BAE profits" and told Reuters he wanted the government to reopen a fraud investigation into a giant arms deal between Saudi Arabia and Britain's BAE Systems.

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair was criticised last year for closing the corruption probe, which Blair said would have harmed national security. BAE, Britain's biggest defence contractor, has denied making any wrongful payments in its dealings with Saudi Arabia.

Abdullah, ruler of the world's largest oil exporter, is scheduled to hold talks with Brown later this week.

A Foreign Office official said on Monday that Britain talked regularly to Saudi Arabia about human rights but added: "There are no specific human rights issues that we expect to dominate the next two days."

Exports from Britain to Saudi Arabia hit $9 billion in 2007 and surged 12% in the first half of this year, according to the UK’s trade and investment agency. The UK is the second largest foreign investor in the Arab state.

Around 20,000 British citizens live and work in Saudi Arabia, with 125,000 British Muslims attending the Haj and other ceremonies.

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