The real problem with Boris Johnson’s supposed gaffe, in which he spoke of Saudi Arabia and Iran being involved in “puppeteering” and proxy wars, is that it happens to be absolutely true; he has said that which no one in diplomatic circles denies, but which no one dares admit either.
As readers of this magazine will know, Saudi Arabia is the leading Sunni power and is involved in a struggle with Iran, the leading Shia power: this is seen in a variety of theatres, but most dramatically in the wars in Yemen and Syria.
It is worth pointing out two things here. First, the Shia, a minority in Islam, are not aiming at domination but at survival. They are, wherever they live in Sunni-majority lands, persecuted. They are in a majority in Azerbaijan, Iran and Iraq, and in a precariously dominant position with other allies in Syria and Lebanon, but that is all. Secondly, no one minds Boris Johnson accusing the Iranians of stirring up war; what upsets Downing Street is the thought of criticism directed at the Saudis. They are our allies; Iran is not; we can be as rude about Iran as we like, but under no account must we tell the truth about Saudi Arabia.
As has been pointed out in these pages before now, this policy – pro-Saudi, anti-Iran – is perhaps not the best one for Britain. It is not the best one either, perhaps, for the people of Yemen or the people of Syria. After all, Yemen is currently being bombed by the Saudis using British-made weapons of war. Though it has to be admitted that which side is the right side in Yemen is hard to determine. (The same might be said of Syria.)
But one thing is certain. Britain’s relationship with Saudi Arabia is an important one, and can only become more so after Brexit, and that relationship is largely about arms sales and money. The fact that Britain is armourer-in-chief to a regime that represses people in its own territory and bombs them abroad is not compatible with any claim to pursue an ethical foreign policy. But British jobs depend on arms exports to Saudi Arabia, and we are all concerned for the economy. It is a hard one, as they say.
But one thing is for sure. Boris Johnson has spoken the truth: this should not be held against him, and may well enhance his reputation with the voting public.
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