No-one could have missed Boris Johnson hitting the headlines last week over his comments that Saudi Arabia and Iran were acting as 'puppeteers' in proxy wars in the Middle East. Neither would they have missed No10 distancing itself from his comments, explaining: "Those are the Foreign Secretary's views, they are not the Government's views on Saudi..."
Essentially, the Foreign Secretary was arguing that we need more dialogue and less division - we need visionary leadership which rises above sectarian divisions and interests and seeks to stabilise the Middle East and end the series of proxy wars that have been taking place across the region.
This is a sentiment few would disagree with. The question though, is how do you best achieve this goal and affect the desired change? Although publicly, being a critical friend may feel right - indeed it may be right - and will be welcomed by many who want their politicians to just be honest and say what they believe, it may not be the best way to affect policy change in our ally Saudi Arabia, or the most effective diplomacy.
As our chief diplomat, Johnson should be heeding the Foreign Office's convention of not criticising a key UK ally. The role calls for being a critical friend to our allies in private, but not in public. The Foreign Secretary should only be progressing to public as a last resort when diplomatic channels aren't working. And perhaps the Foreign Office's gilded doors diplomacy is not working - or at least not quickly enough?
It's very much a question of timing. We need long term investments in diplomatic relationships to secure change that will take place over the next couple of years, not months - no matter how much we might want change to happen sooner. The sectarian tensions Johnson rightly attributes to the wars ravaging the Middle East are not just a product of geopolitics, but have significant historical and religious groundings that require not just political leadership, but religious captaincy. Johnson's comments have been said before, and will be said again, but to achieve real change, they need to be laid out behind closed doors - not in the media.
In this way the Prime Minister is right when she says it's through dialogue that you can change partners' positions and support reform, for example trade and security ties. But is there a place for being more of a critical friend? Absolutely. But shouldn't that be our MPs role rather than the Foreign Secretary's?
It must have been awkward for Johnson as he made his trip to Saudi on Sunday, but he was still resolute that he wouldn't apologise for his remarks. There is a convention of not criticising allies, but he really wasn't saying anything those who've worked in in the Foreign Office and across the country would not agree with. In fact, if anything, his comments will have raised awareness of an issue that needs addressing.
For too long proxy wars have laid waste to swathes of the Middle East and someone needs to step forward and at least attempt to end them. Interestingly, we have seen an increase in more critical comments from the US over the past few months - including a comment that their support is not a blank cheque for Saudi military activities, so he is not alone in making his concerns public.
However, his comments do not bring into doubt the UK's continued and strong support for Saudi Arabia. The UK and US has a longstanding position of supporting Saudi in security issues and this will not be undermined by his comments.
Johnson may be brave, or just brazen. But whatever your view on his intentions, our allies are accustomed to criticism. They just don't want that criticism played out in public.Suggest a correction