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Boris Johnson's Middle Eastern misadventures - and other verbal punches

Britain's new foreign secretary is not a man known for his thoughtful diplomacy, as a trawl through his colourful and outspoken past reveals
Former London mayor Boris Johnson is set to spar on the world stage following his appointment as foreign secretary (AFP)

The appointment by new British Prime Minister Theresa May of Boris Johnson as the UK's new foreign secretary has raised eyebrows internationally.

A newspaper columnist, member of parliament, former mayor of London, and all-round self-publicist, Johnson is not a man known for his thoughtful diplomacy or tact.

Here Middle East Eye compiles some of his more colourful and controversial opinions about the Middle Eastern region and beyond.

'Bravo for Assad'

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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been accused of perpetrating war crimes and condemned by many within the international community.

But Boris Johnson was not short of praise for Assad when Syrian government forces retook the ancient city of Palmyra from the Islamic State (IS) group earlier this year.

Despite describing Assad as a "vile tyrant", in a column for the Daily Telegraph newspaper he hailed the recapture of Palmyra as a "victory for archaeology":

"There may be booby traps in the ruins, but the terrorists are at last on the run. Hooray, I say. Bravo – and keep going. Yes, I know. Assad is a monster, a dictator. He barrel-bombs his own people. His jails are full of tortured opponents.... [But] the victory of Assad is a victory for archaeology, a victory for all those who care about the ancient monuments of one of the most amazing cultural sites on Earth."

BDS Movement promoted by 'snaggle-toothed lefties' 

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A recent trip by Johnson, then still mayor London's mayor, to Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories was cut short when Johnson described British supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as "completely crazy" and promoted by a "few lefty academics".

Palestinian youth group Sharek Youth said in a statement after Johnson’s comments that it did not feel able to host him in "good conscience".

Insulting Erdogan

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In May Johnson won the “President Erdogan offensive poetry competition,” launched by the UK's Spectator magazine in response to a perceived crackdown by the Turkish president on people insulting him, by penning a crude limerick suggesting that Erdogan enjoyed having sex with a goat. Here is the prize-winning poem in full:

"There was a young fellow from Ankara, Who was a terrific w*****er.

"Till he sowed his wild oats, With the help of a goat, But he didn’t even stop to thankera.”

IS bombers 'severe onanists'

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Speaking during a visit to the Kurdish region of northern Iraq in January, Johnson took aim at IS militants, suggesting the foreign fighters who had joined the group were sexually frustrated:

"If you look at all the psychological profiling about bombers, they typically will look at porn. They are literally w*****s. Severe onanists.

“They are tortured. They will be very badly adjusted in their relations with women, and that is a symptom of their feeling of being failures and that the world is against them.

“They are not making it with girls, and so they turn to other forms of spiritual comfort - which of course is no comfort.”

Forgetting to pay his bar bill in Iraq

Following the same trip, during which he was photographed posing with an AK-47 while visiting British troops helping Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, leaked diplomatic correspondence suggested that Foreign Office staff had picked up the bar tab for the then-London mayor. 

They also had to stop him visiting the frontline against IS and prevented him from prematurely announcing a trade deal. 

Colonial attitudes

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In a column for the Telegraph in 2002, Johnson described black people as "flag-waving piccaninnies" with "watermelon smiles". Writing in the Spectator in the same year he said of Africa:

"The continent may be a blot, but it is not a blot upon our conscience. The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge anymore."

London the 'eighth emirate of the world'

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Speaking at the Telegraph's Middle East Congress in 2015, Johnson said there were "gigantic spacecraft full of bullion" waiting to find their way to the British capital, which benefited from the "rule of law" and provided the world's wealthy with a "safe environment" for their cash:

"There will be fluctuations in the oil price but there is no other global capital challenging London's position as the eighth emirate."

Hillary Clinton 'a sadistic nurse'

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In 2007 Boris John described Hillary Clinton, the now presumptive Democratic US presidential candidate and wife of former president Bill Clinton, as representing everything he “came into politics to oppose”, and wrote that she had behaved during her time as first lady "like a mixture between [Tony Blair's wife] Cherie Blair and Lady Macbeth, stamping her heel, bawling out subordinates and frisbeeing ashtrays at her erring husband":

"She's got dyed blonde hair and pouty lips, and a steely blue stare, like a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital."

Avoiding Trump

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But Johnson was at least as scathing in remarks last year about Donald Trump, Clinton's presumptive Republican opponent in November's presidential election. Responding to Trump's suggestion that Muslims should be banned from entering the US, Johnson described the comments as "ill-informed" and "complete and utter nonsense":

"The only reason I wouldn't go to some parts of New York is the real risk of meeting Donald Trump.”

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.