Johnson defends Saudi trip in pursuit of broad anti-Putin bloc

PM mounts rearguard action despite execution of 81 people in kingdom last weekend

Boris Johnson has defended his decision to visit Saudi Arabia, saying it was important to have as broad a coalition as possible to confront Vladimir Putin over his invasion of Ukraine. Opposition parties have criticised the British prime minister's visit to the kingdom despite Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the execution of 81 people last weekend.

“I think what the world is seeing is the return in Ukraine to the kind of brutality, the kind of absolutely indiscriminate bombing of civilian centres, of great cities that we last saw in the European continent 80 years ago, this is quite unbelievable what is happening now in our continent. We need to make sure that we build the strongest, widest possible coalition to ensure that Vladimir Putin does not succeed, that we wean ourselves off Russian hydrocarbons and that is what the UK is helping to do,” Mr Johnson said.

Britain hopes to use its close ties to Saudi Arabia to persuade the oil-rich kingdom to increase output to make up for reduced Russian supplies. But the prime minister suggested that a thaw in relations with Iran, another major oil producer, could be on the way after imprisoned dual Iranian-British citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe had her British passport returned to her.

“I think that it’s very important when you have got quite delicate discussions going on, negotiations going on in Tehran about some of our most difficult consular cases – particularly Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe – you should say as little as possible unless and until the thing is actually concluded,” he said.


“Everybody wants Nazanin home, we have been working on that for a long, long time. I do not want to do anything to interrupt the conversations right now.”

‘Exploring options’

The prime minister’s official spokesman refused to confirm that a British negotiating team was in Tehran but affirmed Britain’s willingness to repay the Iranian government for Chieftain 1500 tanks ordered and paid for in the 1970s which were not delivered after the overthrow of the Shah.

“There is no change on our position to that. We are committed to paying the debt. We’re exploring options to resolve it; it has not been resolved,” the spokesman said.

Former prime minister Tony Blair intervened in the debate on the Ukraine war on Tuesday to call on Nato to stop ruling out getting involved in the war. Mr Blair, who led Britain into an illegal war in Iraq, said Mr Putin was using Nato's desire to avoid escalation as a bargaining chip.

"I accept the reasoning behind our stance. But suppose he uses chemical weapons or a tactical nuclear weapon, or tries to destroy Kyiv as he did Aleppo in Syria, without any regard to the loss of civilian life – is it sensible to tell him in advance that whatever he does militarily, we will rule out any form of military response? Maybe that is our position and maybe that is the right position, but continually signalling it, and removing doubt in his mind, is a strange tactic," he said.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times