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Downing Street has said Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s comments on Saudi Arabia do not represent “the government’s position”.
Footage has emerged from an event last week at which Mr Johnson said UK ally Saudi Arabia was engaging in “proxy wars” in the Middle East.
The PM’s spokeswoman said these were the foreign secretary’s personal views.
BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg quotes one senior MP as saying: “Boris Johnson has used up all of his lives.”
BBC diplomatic correspondent James Landale described Downing Street’s response as a “pretty robust slapdown”.
Mr Johnson’s comments were made at a conference in Rome last week but only emerged after the The Guardian newspaper published footage of the event.
In it the foreign secretary 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.”
‘Offending the Saudis’
Mr Johnson told the Med 2 conference: “There are not enough big characters, big people, men or women, who are willing to reach out beyond their Sunni or Shia or whatever group to the other side and bring people together and to develop a national story again.
“That is what’s lacking. And that’s the tragedy,” he said, adding that “visionary leadership” was needed in the region.
He went on: “That’s why you’ve got the Saudis, Iran, everybody, moving in and puppeteering and playing proxy wars.”
Analysis: Why Johnson’s comments were a problem
By BBC diplomatic correspondent James Landale
The prime minister has just come back from the Gulf where she has been promoting Britain’s engagement with a part of the world whose trade will be hugely important after Brexit.
She has dined with the Saudi king, praised the kingdom for its reforms and given thanks for the vital intelligence the Saudi security services have provided Britain over the years.
And then Theresa May returned to hear her foreign secretary had dismissed the Saudis as “puppeteers” playing at “proxy wars”.
It is little wonder that her official spokeswoman came down on Mr Johnson like a tonne of black-edged Downing Street bricks, saying that the foreign secretary was not expressing the government’s position and he will have the opportunity to set out the correct government position when he visits Saudi Arabia at the weekend.
The BBC’s diplomatic correspondent James Landale said Mr Johnson had spoken a “bit of truth”, but it was “clearly awkward” for the government, which had led to No 10’s “slapdown”.
He said many people would agree with the analysis that many of the Middle East conflicts were proxy wars fought between Sunni and Shia factions, often in the form of Iran and Saudi Arabia being on opposing sides, such as in Syria and Yemen.
However it was not the official government position, our correspondent added.
The UK was supporting the Saudi conflict in Yemen not because it was a proxy war, but because they believed that strategically it was the right thing to do and could help stop Yemen becoming a failed state, he said.
He said by dismissing this as “proxy wars” and “puppeteering”, the foreign secretary risked offending the Saudis.
Downing Street’s comment came as Prime Minister Theresa May returned from a visit to the Gulf where she had dinner with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman.
Her spokeswoman said that Mrs May wanted to strengthen the relationship with Saudi Arabia, saying, “we are supporting the Saudi-led coalition in support of the legitimate government in Yemen against Houthi rebels”.
She said: “Those are the prime minister’s views – the foreign secretary’s views are not the government’s position on, for example, Saudi Arabia and its role in the region.”
Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry accused the government of “shabby hypocrisy”.
“The government cannot complain about Saudi Arabia’s military actions one minute, then continue selling it the arms to prosecute those actions the next,” she said.
Tom Brake, the Lib Dems’ foreign affairs spokesman, said: “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.”
Robert Lacey, a historian and author of the Kingdom and the House of Saud, said that while he agreed with Mr Johnson’s comments, he questioned whether he should be saying them about an ally.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that he believed it was a gaffe and that Mr Johnson was acting more like a journalist.