Boris Johnson to visit Middle East after Saudi Arabia 'proxy wars' comments

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Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson will face a diplomatically testing tour of the Middle East after accusing British ally Saudi Arabia of being behind "proxy wars".

The senior Cabinet minister was slapped down by Downing Street over his comments, with Number 10 saying his views did not represent official Government policy.

Johnson will deliver a keynote speech at a major regional conference in Bahrain on Friday before heading to Saudi Arabia on Sunday.

Theresa May's official spokeswoman said the Prime Minister had "full confidence" in Johnson but told reporters that his comments at a conference in Italy were his own personal view and did not reflect Government policy.

Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson (Nick Ansell/PA)

And she pointedly noted that 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.

May spoke with Saudi King Salman during her visit to the Persian Gulf this week, when he was able to hear the PM assure him of "her commitment and that of her Government to enhancing and strengthening this relationship", said the spokeswoman.

The Guardian published footage of Johnson's comments to the Med2 conference in Rome last week, in which he lumped Saudi Arabia in with Iran when he raised concerns about "puppeteering" in the region.

Johnson said: "There are politicians who are twisting and abusing religion and different strains of the same religion in order to further their own political objectives. That's one of the biggest political problems in the whole region.

Theresa May.
Theresa May (Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP)

"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."

The Foreign Secretary said there were not enough "big characters" in the region who were willing to "reach out beyond their Sunni or Shia" group.

He told the conference: "That's why you've got the Saudis, Iran, everybody, moving in and puppeteering and playing proxy wars."

A Foreign Office spokesman said: "As the Foreign Secretary made very clear on Sunday, we are allies with Saudi Arabia and support them in their efforts to secure their borders and protect their people. Any suggestion to the contrary is wrong and misinterpreting the facts."

Boris Johnson.
Johnson with NATO foreign ministers (Virginia Mayo/AP)

May's spokeswoman told a regular Westminster media briefing: "Those are the Foreign Secretary's views. They are not the Government's position on Saudi and its role in the region.

"The Foreign Secretary will be in the region this weekend. He will be in Saudi Arabia on Sunday and will have the opportunity to set out the way the UK sees its relationship with Saudi Arabia and the work we want to do with them and other partners to bring an end to the appalling conflict in Yemen."

Asked whether Johnson was expected to apologise to the Saudi regime on Sunday, the spokeswoman said: "He will have meetings with senior representatives in Saudi Arabia and he will have the opportunity to set out the Government's position."

The PM's spokeswoman said the UK had been clear in its support for the action of the Saudi-led coalition seeking to restore control of Yemen to its "legitimate government" after the actions of Houthi rebels threw the country into conflict in 2014.

Prime Minister Theresa May.
May with King of Bahrain King Hamad Bin Isa Khalifa (Stefan Wermuth/PA)

"Saudi Arabia is playing an important role in Yemen and we support the actions of the coalition there," she said.

By contrast, the PM's spokeswoman said that Iran - which has been accused of supporting the Houthis - was "acting in a destabilising way in the region".

Britain backs investigations into alleged breaches of human rights by the Saudi-backed coalition in Yemen and has urged Riyadh to ensure they are completed and that any lessons learnt are acted on, she added.