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Johnson's Saudi Arabia 'proxy wars' comment a personal view, not policy - May

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has been slapped down by Downing Street over his claim that British ally Saudi Arabia has been "playing proxy wars" in the Middle East.

Theresa May's official spokeswoman said the Prime Minister had "full confidence" in Mr Johnson but told reporters that his comments at a conference in Italy were his own personal view and did not reflect Government policy.

And she pointedly noted that Mr Johnson will have the opportunity to set out official policy - of Britain's desire to strengthen its ties with Saudi Arabia and support for its military involvement in Yemen - when he travels to the desert kingdom for talks on Sunday.

Mrs May spoke with King Salman during her visit to the Persian Gulf this week, when he was able to hear the PM assure him of "her commitment and that of her Government to enhancing and strengthening this relationship", said the spokeswoman.

The Guardian published footage of Mr Johnson's comments to the Med2 conference in Rome last week, in which he lumped Saudi Arabia in with Iran when he raised concerns about "puppeteering" in the region.

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 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."

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."

Mrs May's spokeswoman told a regular Westminster media briefing: "Those are the Foreign Secretary's views. They are not the Government's position on Saudi and its role in the region.

"The Foreign Secretary will be in the region this weekend. He will be in Saudi Arabia on Sunday and will have the opportunity to set out the way the UK sees its relationship with Saudi and the work we want to do with them and other partners to bring an end to the appalling conflict in Yemen."

Asked whether Mr Johnson was expected to apologise to the Saudi regime on Sunday, the spokeswoman said: "He will have meetings with senior representatives in Saudi Arabia and he will have the opportunity to set out the Government's position."

The spokeswoman confirmed that Mrs May speaks "regularly" to Mr Johnson, but declined to confirm whether they had talked since his comments became public.

"The Prime Minister has full confidence in the Foreign Secretary," she added.

The PM's spokeswoman said the UK had been clear in its support for the action of the Saudi-led coalition seeking to restore control of Yemen to its "legitimate government" after the actions of Houthi rebels threw the country into conflict in 2014.

"Saudi Arabia is playing an important role in Yemen and we support the actions of the coalition there," she said.

By contrast, the PM's spokeswoman said that Iran - which has been accused of supporting the Houthis - was "acting in a destabilising way in the region".

Britain backs investigations into alleged breaches of human rights by the Saudi-backed coalition in Yemen and has urged Riyadh to ensure they are completed and that any lessons learnt are acted on, she added.

the Liberal Democrats described Mr Johnson's comments as "a huge embarrassment" to the Prime Minister.

"For once Boris Johnson is talking sense, but his comments on Saudi's questionable role in Middle Eastern politics are completely at odds with official Government policy," said foreign affairs spokesman Tom Brake.

"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."

Former Middle East minister Alistair Burt said Mr Johnson would have to "quickly repair" the damage caused by diverging from the Government position.

He told BBC Radio 4's World At One: "T here's no doubt where the strength of the relationship has to be.

"It has to be a very close one between Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister but ultimately it is the Prime Minister who sets the tone and direction of the Government."

He added: "Your comments made earlier that it is essential that the Foreign Secretary speaks and is seen to speak with the voice of the Government is very important and I expect that relationship will be very quickly repaired, because that's an important one.

"And the Foreign Secretary has to have the full confidence (from) the Prime Minister and those that work with him need to know that."

Mr Johnson is expected to deliver a keynote address at a major international conference in the Middle East starting on Friday.

His speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Manama Dialogue event in Bahrain will be closely watched following his comments about Saudi Arabia.

Dr John Chipman, director-general and chief executive of the IISS, said: "Each year, with this regional security summit, we take the temperature, measure the pulse, and analyse the direction of change in the Middle East.

"I am delighted that Boris Johnson has agreed to give the keynote speech and we expect delegates to be keenly interested in his views on the region and on UK strategy towards it."

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