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.
Mr Johnson will deliver a keynote speech at a major regional conference in Bahrain today before heading to Saudi Arabia on Sunday.
Theresa May’s official spokesperson said the Foreign Secretary’s comments about the activities of the autocratic petro-state were his own view and did not reflect Government policy.
Ministers have previously officially refused to criticise Saudi Arabia despite widespread reports of it committing war crimes in its military campaign in Yemen and a dire human rights situation at home.
The Foreign Secretary himself has previously publicly defended the country from criticism, as well as defended the UK’s sale of billion of pounds of bombs to its armed forces.
Mr Johnson however told the Med2 conference in Rome last week: “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."
He added: “That’s why you've got the Saudis, Iran, everybody, moving in and puppeteering and playing proxy wars.”
The footage of the conference, published in The Guardian newspaper, is embarrassing for Mr Johnson, who is due to visit the autocratic petro-state on Sunday.
A Saudi delegation was also present at the Gulf cooperation council in Bahrain this week, which Theresa May visited.
Questioned about the comments on Thursday, Downing Street 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 again, the PM’s official spokesperson said: “I’ve set out what the PM’s 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.
“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, and the work we want to do with them and other partners in the region to bring an end to the appalling conflict in Yemen, in which only last night we saw the humanitarian suffering.”
Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry said her party had been making the same argument as Mr Johnson “for months”, accusing the Government of hypocrisy.
“That argument has consistently been rejected by Boris Johnson in the House of Commons, but now these remarks in Italy have shown us what he really thinks,” she said.
“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.
“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 Democrats’ shadow foreign secretary Tom Brake said Mr Johnson was “for once” talking sense.
He added: “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.”
Andrew Smith of Campaign Against Arms Trade said: “Boris Johnson’s comments are a clear contrast from his public position, which has been to consistently praise the Saudi regime, despite it being one of the most abusive dictatorships in the world. If he believes them to be puppeteers for proxy wars, then why is he continuing to arm and support them?”
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.”
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