Johnson accused long-time British ally Saudi Arabia of “playing proxy wars” and twisting and abusing Islam
The British Prime Minister has distanced herself from remarks by her foreign secretary accusing Saudi Arabia of "abusing" Islam and "puppeteering" proxy wars in the Middle East.
A video of UK foreign secretary, Boris Johnson reveals him telling delegates at the Med 2 conference in Rome that a lack of strong leadership meant politicians in the region were "twisting and abusing religion and different strains of the same religion to further their own political objectives."
It comes after international aid group Oxfam warned that fighting between Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and the government forces in Yemen - backed by a Saudi-led coalition of Gulf States - is slowly starving the country to death.
Britain is a long-time ally of Saudi Arabia and has been backing the Middle Eastern power’s ongoing military campaigns through massive arms sales and military support.
Mr Johnson told the audience in Rome that, "you've got the Saudis, Iran, everybody, moving in and puppeteering and playing proxy wars."
He called the situation a "tragedy."
"We need to have some way of encouraging visionary leadership in that area," Mr Johnson said.
“People who can tell a story that brings people together from different factions and different religious groups into one nation."
He blamed a lack of "big characters, big people, men or women, who are willing to reach out beyond their Sunni or Shia or whatever group to the other side and bring people together and develop a national story again."
In what will be seen as a sharp slap-down of her Foreign Secretary, a spokesperson for UK Prime Minster Theresa May told Sky News: "These are the Foreign Secretary's views; they are not the Government's views on Saudi Arabia and its role in the region."
The comments are likely to embarrass Ms May who has recently returned from Bahrain where she was attempting to “turbo-charge” the UK’s trade relations with the Gulf.
Mr Johnson previously said the sale of arms to the Saudis would continue because there was no clear evidence the weapons were being used in contravention of humanitarian law.
The World Health Organisation estimates that 37,000 people have been injured since the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen.
Estimates of the number of causalities in the violence vary from 7,000 to 11,000 people.