At the start of 2016, few thought that Boris Johnson, Britain's foreign secretary, and President-elect Donald Trump would be in the positions they are now as the year comes to an end.
Astonishing electoral outcomes — the surprise win of the Brexit camp in Britain's June referendum and Trump's victory Nov. 8 — vaulted unorthodox politicians into positions of tremendous power and stature. And all signs point to their tenures being as unpredictable as their rise.
In a week that began with Trump seemingly upending decades of established Washington policy in Asia through a few tweets and a phone call, Johnson landed in hot water as well. Britain's top diplomat delivered remarks at a conference in Rome in which he appeared to be attacking long-standing British ally Saudi Arabia.
On stage with Ahmed Aboul Gheit, secretary general of the Arab League, Johnson gestured to the damage regional powers in the Middle East are causing by “puppeteering and playing proxy wars.” He specifically mentioned geopolitical rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran.
“There are politicians who are twisting and abusing religion and different strains of the same religion in order to further their own political objectives,” Johnson said. “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 continued: “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.”
Most observers of the Middle East would say this is a mostly fair analysis. In various Arab states, the politics of sectarianism and narrow interest have overshadowed questions of the common good and hampered effective governance. And Iran and Saudi Arabia, the region's dominant Shia and Sunni powers, respectively, are indeed guilty of fueling sectarian strife in their wider neighborhood.
But the problem is that Johnson, in his capacity as Britain's foreign secretary, stepped out of line in calling out Saudi Arabia, one of the biggest customers for British weapons. Johnson's government, led by Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May, is desperate to bolster an image of a Britain open for business as she shepherds its untidy exit from the European Union. And Johnson himself is expected in the Saudi capital Riyadh this weekend.
Not surprisingly, a spokeswoman from Downing Street came out strongly against Johnson's remarks, telling the Guardian that Johnson's words “are not the government's views on Saudi [Arabia] and its role in the region.” As far as political statements go, it's a strong message to Johnson.
“The prime minister has just come back from the Gulf where she has been promoting Britain's engagement with a part of the world whose trade will be hugely important after Brexit,” noted BBC diplomatic correspondent James Landale. “She has dined with the Saudi king, praised the kingdom for its reforms and given thanks for the vital intelligence the Saudi security services have provided Britain over the years.”
The Downing Street spokeswoman told the Guardian that the prime minister had “full confidence in the foreign secretary.” She went on to celebrate Britain's relationship with the kingdom as well as defend Britain's indirect involvement in the controversial Saudi-led war effort in Yemen, which rights groups argue include attacks on civilian areas that could be considered war crimes.
Saudi Arabia was “a vital partner for the U.K., 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,” the Downing Street spokeswoman said.
Simon Tisdall, a Guardian columnist, argued that the whole incident illustrates Johnson's inconsistency and “unfitness” for his job. Johnson opposed an earlier Labour Party move to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia, no matter his posturing in Rome this week.
“Suspend U.K. arms sales until the U.N. certifies that Riyadh is respecting international law,” Tisdall proposes, before concluding: “Defy Donald Trump and deepen Barack Obama’s opening to Iran. Work to break the Saudi-Sunni mindset of religious war-making. In other words, Boris, put your money where your big mouth is.”
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