Boris Johnson charms Gulf leaders days after Saudi Arabia 'proxy wars' comment

Updated: 

Boris Johnson has emphasised the strength of British relations with Gulf nations as he gave a public speech to Arab leaders just days after it emerged he had criticised ally Saudi Arabia.

The Foreign Secretary failed to directly address the furore he sparked when he accused the state of being behind "proxy wars", but insisted "any crisis in the Gulf is a crisis for Britain" as he talked about the UK's historic ties with the region.

Mr Johnson suffered a humiliating slap down from Number 10 when he claimed Saudi Arabia was "puppeteering", and Conservative predecessor Sir Malcolm Rifkind has said the "jury's out" over his future in the job.

Addressing the International Institute for Strategic Studies Manama Dialogue in Bahrain, Mr Johnson did raise the conflict in Yemen were Saudi Arabia is supporting the internationally-recognised government against Iran backed Hoothi rebels.

Insisting it had been worth spending 12 years negotiating the nuclear deal with Iran, he added: "I think we must build on this foundation and try to develop a better relationship with Tehran.

"But that can only happen if Iran plays by the same rules and exercises its influence in diplomacy and by dialogue."

Mr Johnson said Saudi Arabia is "securing itself from bombardment by the Hoothis".

He added: "But I must also share my profound concerns, which I'm sure is universal in this room, about the present suffering of the people of Yemen.

"I think we can all agree on this key point, that force alone will not bring about a stable Yemen, and that's why we in London have been working so hard with all our partners to drive that political process forwards."

Mr Johnson appeared to charm the audience in a typically colourful speech, triggering laughter among the guests as he talked of selling sand to the Saudis for their golf courses and described London as the "eighth Emirate".

Telling the conference "Britain is back east of Suez", he said £3 billion will be spent on military commitments in the Gulf over the next 10 years.

"That's deepening a partnership that is stronger than with any other group of nations in the world outside Nato," he said.

Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson has defended the Foreign Secretary's criticism of the kingdom, insisting he was "absolutely right".

She told BBC Radio 4's The Westminster Hour: "I think Boris Johnson was absolutely right about what he said about proxy wars, and about Saudi and about Iran. And I agree with his analysis. Now, that might not be the position of the UK Government, but guess what - I am not in the UK Government, and I think he was right."

Theresa May's official spokeswoman said the Prime Minister has "full confidence" in Mr Johnson, but also told reporters his comments were his own personal view and they do not reflect Government policy.

And she pointedly noted that Mr Johnson will have the opportunity to set out official policy - of Britain's desire to strengthen its ties with Saudi Arabia and support for its controversial military involvement in Yemen - when he travels to the desert kingdom.

Asked if No 10 was right to distance itself from Mr Johnson's comments, Ms Davidson said: "I think there is a long standing diplomatic convention about not panning your allies in public. I think that this situation, particularly in Yemen, is desperate. I think that the UK Government is trying its hardest to make a dreadful situation better and I absolutely understand why the UK Government had to come out and say what it said - but I don't think Boris was wrong."

Ms Davidson, who has previously been reluctant to back Mr Johnson in the role, also said she has been "pleasantly surprised by his performance in the job".