UK’s Boris Johnson in Saudi Arabia to ‘emphasise friendship’

The UK foreign secretary also met King Salman and the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef.

Saudi King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud shaking hands with British foreign secretary Boris Johnson in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 11 December 2016. Saudi Press Agency handout via EPA
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RIYADH // British foreign secretary Boris Johnson reiterated Britain’s close ties to Saudi Arabia on a visit on Sunday and said candour was also important, days after making comments widely seen as critical of the kingdom.

He said in a joint news conference with Saudi foreign minister Adel Al Jubeir that he had deep concern for Yemeni suffering but recognised Riyadh faced a grave threat from that country’s conflict, in which the kingdom is leading a coalition of Arab forces against an Iranian-allied rebel group.

“I’m here to emphasise the friendship that exists between the UK and Saudi Arabia, and that is something that is developing and expanding,” Mr Johnson said.

“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 and the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef.

Footage was published in British media on Thursday of Johnson accusing Saudi Arabia, an old ally of Britain’s, and Iran of stoking proxy wars across the Middle East.

Prime minister Theresa May’s spokeswoman said his remarks did not reflect actual policy.

Asked if Riyadh had been getting mixed messages from Britain, Mr Al Jubeir replied “Absolutely not”. The Saudi foreign minister said Mr Johnson’s comments had been misconstrued, and Britain and Saudi Arabia had enjoyed a long strategic relationship extending over 100 years.

Reports of Mr Johnson’s comments came a day after Ms May attended the GCC summit with in Bahrain.

Addressing the summit on Wednesday, she reaffirmed British support for traditional allies in the region and said her country would help “push back against Iran’s aggressive regional actions”.

GCC states and Britain also agreed to a “strategic partnership” to enhance cooperation across a swathe of security, military and regional political interests, as well as increased trade.

On Saturday, Tehran summoned the British ambassador to protest against “interference” by Ms May, over her comments at the summit.

Iran and Britain reopened their respective embassies in 2015 following an international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of sanctions.

Johnson on Sunday echoed Ms May’s comments supporting the agreement with Iran, while also cautioning that the world needs to be “clear-eyed” and vigilant about Iran’s role in the region.

British military personnel have been involved with advising the Saudi-led coalition as it pursues a campaign against the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen’s civil war. The war has killed more than 10,000 people, half of them civilians, and unleashed a humanitarian crisis in the poorest country in the Middle East.

*Reuters and Agence France-Presse