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UK govt. slaps down Boris over Saudi Arabia comments

December 9, 2016

The UK government has again called into question the Foreign Secretary's ability to speak on its behalf. His comments on Saudi Arabia, critics argue, could undermine the UK’s support for Riyadh in Yemen.

Großbritanien Pro-EU-Kolumne von Boris Johnson aufgetaucht
Image: Reuters/T. Melville

Saudi Arabia is "puppeteering and playing proxy wars" in the Middle East and - like Iran - is "twisting and abusing religion" to further its political aims, Johnson said, in remarks published in the UK newspaper The Guardian.

"That's one of the biggest political problems in the whole region," Johnson went on.

"And the tragedy for me - and that's why you have these proxy wars being fought the whole time in that area - is that there is not strong enough leadership in the countries themselves."

We are not amused

Prime Minister Theresa May's spokeswoman, Helen Bower, said later on Thursday that Johnson was "setting out his own views on Saudi Arabia and Iran." 

"But he will be sticking to the government's line when he visits Saudi ministers this weekend," she added.

Bower went on to insist that Downing Street had "full confidence in the foreign secretary,” adding that Saudi Arabia "is a vital partner for the UK, particularly on counter-terrorism."

May met Saudi leaders during a Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Bahrain earlier this week, where she praised cooperation with Saudi Arabia in intelligence sharing. "This has saved potentially hundreds of lives in the UK," she said.

In the Saudi capital, Riyadh, concern was expressed at the "mixed signals” being sent by the British, while the UK's shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, said: "If Boris Johnson keeps getting slapped down by Theresa May every time he states a position, nobody is going to take him seriously when he claims to speak for Britain abroad, and no foreign power is ever going to negotiate with him."

Eccentric, moi?

Johnson's remarks broke a UK diplomatic convention not to criticize Saudi Arabia in public. The UK maintains that the Saudi-led coalition bombing campaign in Yemen - which is aided by UK arms and British military advice - is a legitimate attempt to defend Saudi Arabia's borders.

Infografik Karte Yemen Mukalla ENG EN
Yemen has been in a civil war since 2014, when Shiite Houthi rebels overthrew the government

The UK has 1,500 military personnel and seven warships in the region and is due to spend 3 billion pounds (about 3.4 billion euros)  in the Gulf on defense in the next decade.

Yemen has been in the midst of a civil war since Shiite Houthi rebels overthrew the government in September 2014.

Johnson had earlier defended UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia for potential use in Yemen, as several British MPs said the weapons were likely to be used to violate human rights laws.

Allies rally around Johnson

Johnson's allies meanwhile were quick to defend the minister.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary, said: "The reality is that Britain has a complicated relationship with Saudi Arabia and our economic and political interests do not always coincide. In many ways, Saudi is an important ally but we have a duty as their candid friend to warn them about areas of difficulty.”

Sarah Wollaston, the MP for Totnes, tweeted her support for the foreign secretary, criticising Saudi Arabia's record on human rights.

She said: "Boris was speaking the truth on proxy wars and it's time for all parties in the region to end the sectarian bloodbath.”

The political logic behind appointing Johnson foreign secretary

jbh/bw (dpa, AP)