Britain 'is back' in the Gulf region, says Boris Johnson

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UK foreign secretary's comments follow his controversial remarks on Saudi and Iranian interference in neighboring countries

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson (C) attends a meeting on Syria (AFP)
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Saturday 10 December 2016 14:04 UTC
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Britain "is back" in the Gulf region and stepping up its security commitment, UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told regional policymakers on Friday.

"Britain is back East of Suez," he told the annual Manama Dialogue security forum, as his country prepares to leave the European Union after a shock referendum vote in June to quit the bloc.

"This is about building on and intensifying old friendships," Johnson said.

"Britain has been part of your story for the last 200 years, and we will be with you for the centuries to come."

He stuck close to themes touched on by Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May two days earlier at a summit with Gulf leaders, after Downing Street had to pull him back into line over comments about Britain's ally Saudi Arabia.

At a conference in Rome last week, Johnson accused the kingdom - and its regional rival Iran - of engaging in "proxy wars". A video of his comments was posted on the Guardian website.

Returning from the Gulf summit, May's office said Johnson's comments reflected his "personal position".

Saudi Arabia and Iran support opposite sides of the war in Syria and also in Yemen, where Riyadh has since March last year led a coalition bombing campaign against Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

The coalition has faced repeated allegations of killing civilians in its air strikes during the war, which has displaced more than three million people.

Johnson noted Saudi Arabia's need to secure its borders against rebel bombardments, "but I must also share my profound concern, which I'm sure is universal in this room, about the present suffering of the people of Yemen".

Johnson, who is due to visit Saudi Arabia on Sunday, added that "force alone" will not bring stability to Yemen.

May and the Gulf leaders agreed at their Bahrain summit to form a "strategic partnership" to foster defence and other ties.

"We're spending 3 billion pounds [$3.7 billion] on our military commitment in the Gulf over the next 10 years," Johnson said at the forum, organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

He said that even though Britain plans to withdraw from the treaties tying it to the EU block, the country will continue to work for European peace and stability.

"And by the way, we'll still be able to stick up for our friends and partners in the Gulf."

Britain has 1,500 military personnel and seven warships in the region, he said.

"Your security is our security."