Saudi Arabia a ‘puppeteer’ in proxy wars, Boris Johnson says

UK foreign secretary breaks convention by criticising allies in the Middle East region

Boris Johnson accused Saudi Arabia of abusing Islam and acting as a puppeteer in proxy wars throughout the Middle East. Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA Wire.

Boris Johnson accused Saudi Arabia of abusing Islam and acting as a puppeteer in proxy wars throughout the Middle East. Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA Wire.

 

Boris Johnson accused Saudi Arabia of abusing Islam and acting as a puppeteer in proxy wars throughout the Middle East, in remarks that flout a longstanding Foreign Office convention not to criticise the UK’s allies in public.

The foreign secretary told a conference in Rome last week that the behaviour of Saudi Arabia, and also Iran, was a tragedy, adding that there was an absence of visionary leadership in the region that was willing to reach out across the Sunni-Shia divide.

At the event, Mr 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. 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.”

Prestigious visit

His criticism of Saudi Arabia came as prime minister Theresa May returned from a prestigious two-day visit to the Gulf in which she lauded both the Saudi royal family for its visionary leadership, and the value of the 100-year-old alliance with the UK.

Foreign Office ministers, aware of Saudi sensitivity to criticism and the strategic importance of the Gulf relationship, usually soft-pedal and focus on their path to reform.

However, since becoming foreign secretary,Mr Johnson has repeatedly landed himself in trouble. He has been accused of committing a string of gaffes and some people argue his tendency to speak frankly loses the UK allies.

Members of the Saudi royal family, along with Qatar and Turkey, have frequently been accused of regarding the civil war in Syria as a contest between a largely Sunni-led opposition and an Iranian Shia-led militia. But government ministers working alongside the Gulf states in Syria do not describe the Syrian opposition as “puppets”.

The British defence industry is also heavily dependent on arms contracts with the Gulf states, and the Royal Navy has established a major naval base in Manama, the capital of Bahrain.

Mr Johnson is due to visit the region this weekend, when he will have to explain why he thinks the Gulf states are abusing Islam for political ends.

‘Big people’

Speaking at the Med 2 conference in Rome last week, Mr Johnson rounded on the quality of political leadership in the Middle East, saying: “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.”

The Foreign Office said on Wednesday that Johnson had expressed his strong support for Saudi Arabia on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show at the weekend, and said his criticism of the lack of leaders willing to reach out across religious divides was a reference to the lack of such leaders inside conflict zones - such as Yemen and Syria.

Mr Johnson’s remarks in Rome came in response to a claim made by the secretary general of the Arab League, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, that Sunni-Shia division was wrongly being used “to serve national policies and objectives”.

Mr Aboul Gheit said: “Religion was being used as an instrument of politics. That should not be.”

Guardian News and Media