Will Boris Johnson's Saudi comments hurt the UK's Gulf trade charm offensive?

 
Mark Sands
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The Conservative Party Annual Conference
Johnson said that Saudi Arabia was "twisting" Islam and engaging in proxy wars with Iran (Source: Getty)

Foreign secretary Boris Johnson's attack on Saudi Arabia runs the risk of harming UK efforts to build trading relations with Gulf states, experts say.

In remarks reported earlier this week, Johnson accused the Saudi regime of “twisting” Islam for political ends, fighting “proxy wars” in the region with Iran.

Downing Street this morning issued a slapdown to Johnson, stressing that his views did not represent the government, but it comes at an awkward time for the UK.

Theresa May has only just travelled back from the Gulf, where she has been seeking to build ties, while international trade secretary Liam Fox has also been engaging in trips to the region.

By coincidence, Johnson himself is also due to visit Saudi Arabia over the weekend.

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"It's meant to be a full-on charm offensive, so you would imagine that strong messages will be sent that this is not the view of the government," said Peter Salisbury, associate fellow of the Middle East and North African programme at Chatham House.

"The British government is very keen to establish a close relationship with the Gulf states, and Theresa May literally said as much this week, talking about deepening trade, political and military ties."

"But given that the foreign secretary has something of a history of saying things that don't go down brilliantly well, I think they will be able to dampen any negative consequences that come from this."

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Henry Jackson Society founder and executive director Alan Mendoza added: “The speed with which his comments have been slapped down by No. 10 shows that there is widespread concern about the likely reaction from the Gulf.

“This episode shows that Britain will need to find a way to make foreign policy co-exist with trade policy, or else post-Brexit Britain will become a larger trading version of Switzerland rather than a proud, outward looking nation."

It comes just days after Downing Street was forced to declare that including students in migration numbers remained its policy, despite Johnson saying they should not be.

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