Minister says UK and Saudi Arabia have 'shared values'

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As Gordon Brown faced mounting criticism yesterday over the state visit of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, the Foreign Office minister Kim Howells called for Britain and the Saudi monarchy to work more closely together on a basis of "shared values".

Mr Howells said: "Some commentators will focus on our differences and ask how we can talk of shared values." But, he added, "we both face the same threats and insecurities ... The case for working together to safeguard our security is stronger than ever." Mr Howells made no specific reference to King Abdullah's claims that UK intelligence failed to act on a Saudi tip-off about the London Tube and bus bombings in 2005, but insisted that both countries understood the threat that groups such as al-Qa'ida pose.

His comments came after the Foreign Secretary David Miliband pulled out of a speaking engagement at the opening of the "Two Kingdoms" conference between the UK and Saudi Arabia in London. Mr Miliband is taking leave from his post as he and his wife, Louise, adopt a second son, Jacob.

The statement by Mr Howells drew an angry reaction from the Labour backbenches. "I am astounded that a government minister can identify shared values with a regime that is world-renowned for its abuse of human rights and civil liberties," said John McDonnell, the left-wing MP co-ordinating protests at the Saudi embassy tomorrow.

A dossier on executions, prolonged detention of peaceful critics without trial, and discrimination against women was issued yesterday by Amnesty International who said that it was "extremely concerned" at the extent and severity of human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. This year, at least 124 people have been executed, the majority by beheading, said the group.

King Abdullah will be feted today at a state banquet at Buckingham Palace before meeting Mr Brown at No 10 tomorrow. He will also be guest of honour at a banquet at the Guildhall, before the Queen and Prince Philip bid him farewell on Thursday.

The Liberal Democrats' acting leader Vince Cable was supported by colleagues after announcing he would be boycotting the state visit. Chris Huhne, a Liberal Democrat leadership candidate, said: "The accolade of a full state visit is quite wrong. We are feting the reactionary leader of a society that discriminates against women, tortures prisoners, conducts public executions, amputates limbs as a punishment, and bans freedom of expression, assembly and religion. Saudi Arabia's human rights record is atrocious."

A Foreign Office spokesman said: "Saudi Arabia is one of the UK's most important international partners. King Abdullah's visit will further deepen and broaden that relationship."

The Tory leader David Cameron rejected calls for a boycott. He said there were "many things" about which Britain agreed with Saudi Arabia, citing the need for progress in Iraq and the Middle East.

A Downing Street spokeswoman said: "The Government has, where necessary, raised concerns we have regarding human rights, but equally we are recognising that there have been developments under way. The meeting will go ahead."