Britain PM courts key Arab ally, amid Trump anti-Muslim row

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AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — Britain is making a "new, ambitious and optimistic offer" of closer security and economic ties with Arab allies, the country's prime minister said Thursday, the last day of a Mideast trip meant to bolster ties with the region before the U.K. leaves the European Union.

Theresa May pledged tens of millions of pounds in additional aid, singling out Jordan, and said Britain would negotiate a post-Brexit trade deal with the pro-Western kingdom.

In a wide-ranging foreign policy speech in Jordan's capital, May also addressed the wars in Yemen and Syria, and the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

May called on a Saudi-led coalition fighting Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen to lift a sea and air blockade of the war-stricken country which has teetered on the brink of famine.

The coalition tightened the blockade earlier this month, in response to a rebel missile launch toward the Saudi capital.

The British leader said that in talks with Saudi Arabia's crown prince Wednesday, "we agreed that steps needed to be taken as a matter of urgency to address this."

May has faced increasing calls to stop British arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Britain has licensed over $6.1 billion worth of arms sales to the kingdom since the war began.

Turning to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, May said that while incitement to violence and denial of Israel's right to exist must stop, "those actions of the Israeli government which create an obstacle to peace — not least illegal settlement construction — must also stop."

May's three-day trip to Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Jordan was overshadowed by a row with President Donald Trump, over his stoking of anti-Islam sentiments.

In Thursday's speech, she said Trump's retweets of inflammatory anti-Muslim videos by a "hateful" far-right British political group were "the wrong thing to do."

But May dug in her heels over mounting calls to cancel Trump's planned state visit to Britain. She said the visit was still on — though she suggested it was not imminent.

"An invitation for a state visit has been extended and has been accepted," she said. "We have yet to set a date.

May's speech came after a meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah II, seen as a leading champion of religious tolerance and a partner in the campaign against Islamic militants.

The British leader reassured Arab allies that her country would remain engaged in the region in a post-Brexit era, saying that "we are making a new, ambitious and optimistic offer of partnership."

"To those who ask if the United Kingdom is in danger of stepping back from the world, I say nothing could be further from the truth," she said.

May singled out Jordan, saying deeper security and economic ties with the kingdom were the centerpiece of her commitment.

She promised 94.5 million pounds ($128 million) to support Jordan's economy, including $80 million for investment grants and infrastructure projects.

May also said the two countries would work to "deliver an ambitious post-Brexit trade deal."

Abdullah said earlier Thursday that economic support from Britain "will be very critical."

Jordan's stability is seen as a priority by Western allies who have expressed growing concern about the kingdom's economic problems.

Economic growth has been sluggish because of the spillover from conflicts in neighboring Syria and Iraq, such as trade disruptions and the influx of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. Youth unemployment has risen above 30 percent.

At the same time, Jordan is under pressure to lower its public debt, and has undertaken painful reforms, including reductions in subsidies.