UK Politics

Boris Johnson says there is 'candour' in UK-Saudi relations

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Media captionBoris Johnson: "We believe in a candour in our relationship"

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has said there is "candour" in the UK's relationship with Saudi Arabia.

He was rebuked last week by Downing Street after suggesting the country backed "proxy wars" in the Middle East.

Defence Secretary Michael Fallon played down reports of a rift between Mr Johnson and Theresa May, accusing the media of misreporting.

Labour insisted that Mr Johnson, who is currently on a visit to Saudi Arabia, had been "slapped down".

Speaking at a joint press conference in Riyadh with Saudi counterpart Adel al-Jubeir, the foreign secretary said: "I'm here to emphasise the friendship that exists between the UK and Saudi Arabia, and that is something that is developing and expanding.

"And it's also fair to say that we believe in candour in our relationship. Now is the time for us to talk about the positive things that we are doing together."

Mr Johnson also met King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud.

Diplomatic code

The discussions in Riyadh covered counter-terrorism, the conflict in Syria, and the war in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is leading a multi-national coalition air campaign.

Mr Johnson said he understood Saudi security fears over the situation in Yemen - where the Houthi rebel movement, which champions Yemen's Zaidi Shia Muslim minority, has taken control of large parts of the country.

However, BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner said the foreign secretary had repeated his profound concern about human suffering among Yemenis.

He also highlighted Mr Johnson's use of the word "candour", which he said was "usually diplomatic code for telling people something they don't want to hear".

However, our correspondent said contrary to many people's expectations Mr Johnson's visit "appears to have passed off smoothly" and will have brought the two countries "closer together than ever before".

Image copyright Saudi Press Agency
Image caption Boris Johnson spoke to Saudi King Salman (right) and foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir

Speaking after the meeting, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir said Mr Johnson's comments about "proxy wars" had been taken out of context by the media and the matter was now closed.

A Foreign Office spokesman said the meeting between Mr Johnson and King Salman had been "warm and genial", adding: "They covered a broad sweep of history of UK-Saudi relations and shared interests in the region."

Last week, the Guardian newspaper published footage of a meeting in Rome at which the foreign secretary had said Saudi Arabia and Iran were involved in "proxy wars being fought the whole time" in the Middle East.

But the prime minister's spokeswoman later said that Mrs May wanted to strengthen relations with Saudi Arabia, including supporting its efforts to help the "legitimate" government of Yemen.

She added: "Those are the prime minister's views - the foreign secretary's views are not the government's position on, for example, Saudi Arabia and its role in the region."

'Slapped down'

When questioned over this rebuke on BBC One's Andrew Marr Show, Sir Michael Fallon said: "The media, with great respect, are starting to over-textualise every remark that [Mr Johnson] makes.

"Downing Street was asked whether this misreporting of what Boris had said, whether that was government policy. Downing Street simply answered the question."

He added: "Boris's comment, as we have already established, was taken out of context in the reporting that implied we didn't support Saudi Arabia."

The defence secretary also said: "The government is absolutely clear that what Saudi Arabia is entitled to do is defend itself."

Also speaking on the Andrew Marr Show, Labour's shadow home secretary Diane Abbott said: "In over 20 years in Parliament, I've never heard a foreign secretary slapped down the way Theresa May slapped down Boris."

She added that Mr Johnson had been "right" in his reported comments, saying Saudi Arabia had been involved in "proxy wars" and "human rights abuses".

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