Saudi Arabias King Salman (left) with Theresa May and the King of Bahrain, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. Photograph: Carl Court/Getty Images
The Foreign Office said on Wednesday that Johnson had expressed his strong support for Saudi Arabia on the BBCs Andrew Marr Show at the weekend, and said his criticism of the lack of leaders willing to reach out across religious divides was a reference to the lack of such leaders inside conflict zones such as Yemen and Syria.
A spokesman for the foreign secretary said: As the foreign secretary made very clear on Sunday, we are allies with Saudi Arabia and support them in their efforts to secure their borders and protect their people. Any suggestion to the contrary is wrong and misinterpreting the facts.
At the conference, Johnson unfavourably compared the quality of Middle Eastern leadership with the current efforts being made by
Turkish and Greek Cypriots to end the stalemate over the status of the island.
Ive just come from Cyprus where I have seen one example of how this can happen, he said. Its not there yet. It is still very difficult. But you have two leaders, from the Greek community and the Turkish community, who are trying and they are taking risks, each is taking risks with its own community, to try to bring that island together. I see that in Cyprus and I have to tell you I dont see it anywhere else in the region.
He added: Its a tragedy to watch it. We need to have some way of encouraging visionary leadership in that area. People who can tell a story that brings people together from different factions and different religious groups into one nation. Thats what is missing.
Ministers have defended the Saudi role in combatting an Iranian-backed Houthi rebellion in Yemen. The war has led to
widespread famine, thousands of deaths and brutality on all sides.
Foreign Office lawyers have insisted there is
no evidence that the Saudi air campaign against the Houthis means there is a serious risk international humanitarian law will be breached, and as a result no UK government licences to sell arms to Saudi should be withdrawn.
Iranian officials have not yet publicly reacted to Johnsons comments. But Mohammad Marandi, an Iranian commentator close to the establishment, said the foreign secretary was not in a position to lecture Iran on human rights while Britain continued exporting arms to its Arab allies.
The view here is that the British government is highly hypocritical, Marandi said. For him to imply some sort of moral equivalence between Iran and Saudi Arabia is beyond belief.
Marandi said he did not view the conflict in the region as a proxy war between Tehran and Riyadh. This is a war between Saudi Arabia and Yemeni people who want freedom, Bahraini people who want an end to dictatorship and Saudi occupation, and Syrian and Iraqi people who are sick and tired of Saudi promoted Wahabism.
Foad Izadi, a Tehran University professor, said Johnsons comments only served as a distraction from UKs arms sales: Britains words are hollow. The political differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia are quite clear. Usually other countries try to help bridge gaps, but Britain is itself actively selling arms to Saudis and supporting it wholeheartedly.
Johnsons remarks in Rome came in response to a claim made by the secretary general of the Arab League, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, that Sunni-Shia division was wrongly being used to serve national policies and objectives. Aboul Gheit said: Religion was being used as an instrument of politics. That should not be.
Foreign secretary holds the document marked sensitive. Photograph: Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters
At the same conference, Johnson brandished a document marked sensitive which showed the civil service had briefed him that he was to express an interest in replicating the Helsinki east-west peace process for the Middle East, but not to make any commitment to the proposal. It also told him the chief value of the conference lay in meeting other senior politicians.
Downing Street was furious last month when a
snatch photograph revealed detailed notes made by a Conservative party aide about a meeting attended by the Brexit minister, David Davis, appearing to reveal details of the governments EU exit strategy.
By comparison, Johnsons briefing notes are relatively bland, but it shows ministers are still
struggling with the requirement to retain confidentiality.