Don’t lose hope in this dark winter of this dark year folks; I wished upon a star and Boris Johnson criticised Saudi Arabia. Flying in the face of the prime minister’s stance, recently enforced on her trip to the Gulf, the foreign secretary accused Saudi Arabia of ‘twisting and abusing’ Islam, ‘puppeteering and playing proxy wars’ and criticised a lack of leaders reaching out across sectarian divides at a conference in Rome last week.
In some ways, Johnson is the UK’s answer to Trump – the charisma, the hair, the image that he tells it like it is. Unfortunately, ‘it’ happens to often be quite offensive. Still, this is not the first time that I have personally reached out across the Labour-Tory divide and agreed with something Boris has said. When he described Trump’s ‘quite stupefying ignorance’, I was moved. Similarly to Trump, however, what Boris Johnson says can be quite different to what Boris Johnson does. He is now ‘looking forward’ to working with this previously ‘frankly unfit’ man. With his comments on Saudi Arabia, too, he has been criticised for a discrepancy between his words and actions, with Amnesty International UK’s Head of Policy and Government Affairs Allan Hogarth asking, ‘How does Boris Johnson reconcile his concern over Saudi Arabia’s ‘proxy wars’ in the Middle East with his other remarks defending the Saudi-led coalition’s devastating bombing campaign in Yemen?’
However great Johnson’s hypocrisy is, May’s is greater. The government has dismissed his views as his own and has continued to stand by their Middle Eastern ally. There is nothing untrue about what Boris Johnson has said. Iran and Saudi Arabia have undoubtedly used religion, and, more specifically, sectarianism, to their own political gain, demonstrated most clearly in proxy wars. It is no coincidence that in each war Saudi Arabia happens to support the Sunni side and Iran the Shi’ite. Leaders are indeed not effectively reaching across the sectarian divide, and tensions are instead continuing to build. Civilians are dying because of these tensions and wars; over a third of the Saudi-led air strikes in Yemen – that we support through arms sales – hit civilian sites. This is all true.
The hypocrisy is that the government supports Saudi Arabia whilst condemning Iran, which is why Johnson lumping them together in his criticism creates a problem. In the standoff between the great Sunni power and the great Shia power of the Middle East, we have chosen the former. The prime minister’s spokeswoman explained that ‘we are supporting the Saudi-led coalition in support of the legitimate government in Yemen against houthi rebels’. What about Iran’s support of the legitimate government in Syria against the rebels? Iran and Saudi Arabia both support and commit similar atrocities – not only civilian deaths in proxy wars but human rights abuses in their own countries. There is no moral reason to strongly prefer one over the other. In the LBC radio presenter James O’Brien’s words, ‘there’s no consistency [in the government’s stance], there’s no truth, there’s no objective good, there’s no morality, there’s no ethics.’
Boris Johnson’s stance is the honest one. It is not clear whether it will change anything, but it is clear that the world is crying out for more honesty from politicians about their views. Our role is to argue for stances we agree with and against those we don’t, which is a whole lot easier when we know where people truly stand.
Photograph by Financial Times via Flickr and Creative Commons