Boris Johnson has not exactly been a model of diplomatic discretion since he became foreign secretary.
Boris Johnson has not exactly been a model of diplomatic discretion since he became foreign secretary. To many he has seemed the very opposite: a man so used to deploying language extravagantly and even outrageously for journalistic effect that he can’t kick the habit. Now he has publicly criticised Saudi Arabia just as the Prime Minister has been in the Gulf pursuing trade deals with the Saudis among others, but also at a time when Britain’s long-standing alliance with the country is under intense criticism. So is his candour justified?
The Foreign Secretary was speaking at a conference in Rome last week when he accused Saudi Arabia of abusing Islam for its own political ends and for acting as a ‘puppeteer’, by engaging in proxy wars in the Middle East. Iran, Saudi Arabia’s principle rival in the region, came in for the same criticism.
Mr Johnson told the conference: ‘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 the area – is that there is not strong enough leadership in the countries themselves.’
He went on: ‘That’s why you’ve got the Saudis, Iran, everybody, moving in, and puppeteering and playing proxy wars.’ His comments clearly referred to the Syrian civil war which both Saudi Arabia and Iran interpret as being fundamentally a war between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam, even though the Assad regime itself is neither. But he was referring too to the civil war in Yemen, which is more straightforwardly a battle between the two branches.
For a British foreign secretary to speak in these terms about Saudi Arabia is unheard of. Britain has long had a close alliance with the country based on its dominant position as an oil-producer, its strategic position in the Gulf, the partnership on intelligence and security matters and on Saudi Arabia’s importance as an export market for Britain, especially in arms.
To add to the Foreign Secretary’s potential embarrassment, his remarks came to prominence just as the Prime Minister was ending a two-day visit to the Gulf during which she had become the first British premier to attend a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council, had had dinner with the Saudi monarch and pursued trade deals in the wider region worth £30bn over the next five years. Diplomats within the Foreign Office rushed to reassert the strength of the alliance, saying that the Foreign Secretary’s remarks had been misinterpreted.
Criticism within Britain of Saudi policy and of Britain’s relationship with the country is nothing new, however. Indeed it has recently become so vociferous that the Prime Minister herself felt the need to acknowledge it in her own remarks while in the Gulf. 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 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.’
This has been the familiar defence of British policy made by governments of all political persuasions but to many it simply doesn’t wash. They argue that the human rights record of countries such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain do not get appreciably better despite our supposed ‘encouragement’ and ‘support’. But what is currently outraging many of the critics of this policy is what is happening in Yemen.
A civil war has been underway there for nearly two years. Eleven thousand civilians have been either killed or seriously injured during the conflict. Three million have been forced to leave their homes and, according to Oxfam, twenty-one million civilians are in urgent need of aid. Outrages are being committed by both sides, the Houthi rebels backed by Iran and the government, backed by Saudi Arabia. But it is the latter that is causing the most outrage in Britain because of what critics see as Britain’s involvement in the suffering, due to our role as an arms supplier to Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi air force has been accused of responsibility for the plight of so many Yemeni civilians because of its aerial bombardment of civilian areas. Britain, critics argue, is indirectly as guilty because of its arms sales to Saudi Arabia: last year they were worth £3bn.
Mark Goldring, the chief executive of Oxfam Great Britain told me on the Today programme on Wednesday that Britain’s policy was ‘illegal, immoral and incoherent’. It was illegal because, in Oxfam’s view, what was going on was in violation of international humanitarian law. It was immoral, because of the enormous suffering Saudi actions in Yemen were causing. And it was incoherent because at the same time that Britain was aiding and abetting the Saudis through its arms sales, it was providing aid (recently increased to £100m) to Yemen to help deal with the effects of the Saudi air strikes.
Many MPs have expressed similar disquiet over Britain’s implicit role in the conflict. The former Tory international development secretary, Andrew Mitchell, has called for Britain to ‘restrain’ the Saudis. But, with reference to the extent of Saudi military action in Yemen, Mr Johnson argued last weekend that he did not think that ‘the threshold has been crossed’ yet at which arms sales to Saudi Arabia should be suspended. Sceptics retort that the scale of those arms sales are such that no British government will have the nerve to admit the threshold has ever been crossed. Only if we radically change our policy towards Saudi Arabia, especially with regard to arms sales, can Britain once again claim to be acting legally, morally and coherently.
Are they right? Or is the Prime Minister right to persist with Britain’s long-standing policy of closeness to Saudi Arabia? And was Boris Johnson justified or not in using the ‘undiplomatic’ language he spoke in Rome?