A video has emerged of Boris Johnson disparaging the role in the Middle East of Britain’s ally Saudi Arabia, accusing the nation of “playing proxy wars” and abusing Islam for political ends.
The Foreign Secretary was very positive about Saudi-UK relations during an appearance on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday morning.
But speaking just a few days earlier at a conference in Rome, Mr Johnson said Saudi Arabia and Iran were “moving in and puppeteering” in neighbouring states.
The video from the Med 2 event, published by The Guardian, shows Mr Johnson agreeing with Arab League secretary-general Ahmed Aboul Gheit, who said: “The issue is [countries] using religion as an instrument of politics. That should not be.”
Its release came as Prime Minister Theresa May arrived back from a visit to the Gulf where she attended a dinner with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman.
In the video, Mr Johnson can be seen saying: “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 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."
Mr Johnson spoke positively about the role leaders in Cyprus were playing in bringing the Turkish and Greek communities of that island together, adding: “I see that in Cyprus and I have to tell you, I don’t see it anywhere else in the region.”
“We need to have some way of encouraging visionary leadership in that area. People who can tell a story that brings people together from different factions and different religious groups into one nation. That’s what is missing.”
Such comments break the longstanding convention among British ministers not to criticise the conduct of key Gulf state allies.
The UK arms industry relies heavily on exports to the region, which also hosts a number of key British military bases.
And Mr Johnson is himself due to visit the region again this weekend, and faces the prospect of having to defend his statements about Islam in particular.
A Foreign Office spokesman said: "As the Foreign Secretary made very clear [to Marr] 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."
Speaking ahead of her Middle East visit, Ms May said earlier this week that human rights abuses by Gulf states shouldn't affect British trade policy.
She said: “No doubt there will be some people in the UK who say we shouldn't seek stronger trade and security ties with these countries because of their record on human rights.
“But we don't uphold our values and human rights by turning our back on this issue. We achieve far more by stepping up, engaging with these countries and working with them to encourage and support their plans for reform.
“That is how Britain can be a force for good in the world as well as helping to keep our people safe and create new opportunities for business.”
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