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LONDON (Reuters) - British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was not setting out government policy when he said Saudi Arabia and Iran were stoking proxy wars across the Middle East, a spokeswoman for Prime Minister Theresa May said on Thursday.
Johnson, known for his colourful use of language and tendency to go off-script, told an audience in Rome last week that the absence of real leadership in the Middle East had allowed people to twist religion and stoke proxy wars.
It is the latest in a series of gaffes to plague the foreign minister, who even May has jokingly said is hard to keep "on message for a full four days". He has been criticised by some EU officials for using less-than-diplomatic language in talks on Britain's decision to leave the bloc.
May's quick response underlines the importance of Britain's alliance with Saudi Arabia, which is a major customer for British defence companies.
"You've got the Saudis, Iran, everybody, moving in, and puppeteering and playing proxy wars. And it is a tragedy to watch it," Johnson was shown saying in footage posted on the Guardian newspaper's website.
"There are politicians who are twisting and abusing religion and different strains of the same religion in order to further their own political objectives. That's one of the biggest political problems in the whole region," Johnson said.
It is unclear from the footage whether he specifically accused Saudi and Iran of twisting religion, though the Guardian reported that Johnson had accused Saudi Arabia of abusing Islam.
The spokeswoman for May said: "Those are the foreign secretary's views, they are not the government's position on for example Saudi and its role in the region."
May, who visited the Middle East this week, met Saudi King Salman and "set out very clearly the government's view on our relationship with Saudi Arabia, that it is a vital partner for the UK particularly on counter-terrorism", she said.
"We want to strengthen that relationship."
May appointed Johnson, who was key in the campaign for Britain to leave the European Union, in July, after he failed in a bid to become prime minister, cementing her appeal to other Brexit supporters in the ruling Conservative Party.
Her spokeswoman said May still supported her foreign secretary, adding that Johnson would have the "opportunity to set out the way that the UK sees its relationship with Saudi Arabia" during a visit to the region.
Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge and Elizabeth Piper; Editing by Catherine Evans