Boris Johnson - Saudi abuses Islam and is puppeteer in proxy wars
No 10 distances itself from foreign secretary’s comments that Saudi abuses Islam and is puppeteer in proxy wars
London , United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland - 8 Dec 2016 - Guardian
Few would disagree with the foreign secretary when he says that Saudi Arabia and Iran are engaging in proxy wars in the Middle East. Not everyone would use his language, accusing both countries of "puppeteering", but it is well known that both Riyadh and Tehran support opposing sides in several conflicts.
Boris Johnson was not representing the government’s views on Saudi Arabia when he accused the state of abusing Islam and acting as a puppeteer in proxy wars, Downing Street has said. The foreign secretary was setting out his own views on Saudi Arabia and Iran at a conference in Rome last week, the prime minister’s spokeswoman said on Thursday, but would be sticking to the government’s line when he visited Saudi ministers this weekend.
The spokeswoman insisted Downing Street had “full confidence in the foreign secretary” but said Saudi Arabia was “a vital partner for the UK, particularly on counter-terrorism and, when you look at what is happening in the region, we are supportive of the Saudi-led coalition which is working in support of the legitimate government in Yemen against Houthi rebels”.
Asked if the prime minister had any sympathy with Johnson’s view of the Yemen conflict, she added: “I’ve set out what the PM views are, and those are the foreign secretary’s views, they are not the government’s views on Saudi and its role in the region.” Johnson’s remarks, published in the Guardian, came at an embarrassing moment for Downing Street, emerging shortly after Theresa May returned from a two-day trip to the Gulf where she spoke repeatedly of the closeness of the relationship between the UK and Gulf states.
The foreign secretary had 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. 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 then identified Saudi Arabia and Iran specifically, saying: “That’s why you’ve got the Saudis, Iran, everybody, moving in, and puppeteering and playing proxy wars.” Johnson will travel to Saudi Arabia to meet government ministers on Sunday, but the prime minister’s spokeswoman would not comment on whether he would apologise. “He will be in Saudi Arabia on Sunday and will have the opportunity to set out the way that the UK sees the relationship with Saudi Arabia, the work we want to do with them and other partners in the region to bring an end to the appalling conflict in Yemen which only last night we saw the humanitarian suffering there,” she said.
The Saudi government understood the official position of the government clearly because the prime minister had set it out to the king in person during a bilateral meeting this week, Downing Street insisted. “The prime minister spoke to the king of Saudi Arabia herself, this week, not just in a bilateral but at the Gulf Cooperation Council and set out very clearly what her position is.
I think those in Saudi Arabia heard the prime minister and heard her commitment to enhancing and strengthening this relationship,” the spokeswoman said.
Johnson’s remarks in Italy broke a longstanding UK diplomatic convention not to criticise Saudi Arabia in public. The Saudis will be offended that he put Saudi interference in regional conflicts on a par with Iran’s.
The UK has always said the Saudi-led coalition bombing campaign in Yemen, aided by UK arms and British military advice, is a legitimate attempt to defend Saudi Arabia’s borders. In the Saudi capital, Riyadh, concern was expressed at the “mixed signals “ being sent by the British after May had delivered a speech in Bahrain underlining the UK’s enduring commitment to the Gulf region.
The Foreign Office was playing down Johnson’s remarks, saying he had been focusing on the need for leadership reaching out across sectarian divides. Speaking on Wednesday at the Gulf Cooperation Council, the prime minister told Gulf leaders in Bahrain that Iran remained a threat to the stability of the Middle East and the UK would not ignore “aggressive” Iranian actions in Syria and Yemen.
Downing Street sources said May raised Saudi Arabia’s role in the Yemen conflict in her bilateral with King Salman, emphasising the need for a comprehensive Saudi investigation into human rights abuses. She did not call for an independent UN investigation into Saudi forces’ conduct. Opposition politicians seized on the government divisions, but called on the prime minister to engage with Johnson’s criticisms.
The shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, said the remarks showed “shabby hypocrisy” when Johnson had consistently rejected the argument that Yemen was a proxy war in debates on the conflict in the House of Commons. “If that is his genuine view, he needs to explain why he ordered his MPs to vote against Labour’s calls in October to suspend support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, until a lasting ceasefire has been brokered and until alleged violations of international humanitarian law have been properly investigated,” Thornberry said.
“The government cannot complain about Saudi Arabia’s military actions one minute, then continue selling it the arms to prosecute those actions the next. We need to see some consistent principle in the UK’s foreign policy, not more shabby hypocrisy.” The Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, Tom Brake, said the foreign secretary was “talking sense” even if he was at odds with official government policy. “This will be a huge embarrassment to May as she returns from her grubby tour of the Gulf, where she did her best to ignore human rights and desperately push trade at all costs,” Brake said. “The Conservative government rightly condemned Fidel Castro for his human rights record, but have fallen completely silent when it comes to the appalling record of countries they have been cosying up to in the Middle East.”