LONDON - 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 Arabia 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.

Meanwhile, Germany’s defence minister was in Saudi Arabia on Thursday aiming to conclude a training deal for Saudi military officers, the embassy said.

Ursula von der Leyen was to hold talks with her Saudi counterpart, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, on enhancing the “excellent bilateral relations” between the two countries, it said.

“In addition to that, the visit aims to finalise the talks on enhanced cooperation in the training sector. Beginning from next year, the German Defence College will host several young officers and staff from the Saudi military,” the embassy said.

Von der Leyen is the latest German official to visit Saudi Arabia this year, reflecting “a period of intensified exchange” between the two states, ambassador Dieter Haller said in the statement.

The defence minister, who leaves the kingdom on Friday, belongs to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, which governs in coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD).

Sigmar Gabriel, the SPD chief who is also vice-chancellor, in January warned that Berlin could review military exports to Saudi Arabia.

The caution followed Saudi’s mass execution of 47 people convicted of terrorism, including Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr.

Germany has refrained from selling the Heckler & Koch G36 assault rifle and other offensive military weapons to Saudi Arabia but has shipped millions of euros worth of so-called defensive military gear.

Exports last year included patrol boats, all-terrain vehicles, aerial refuelling equipment, drones and parts for combat aircraft and armoured vehicles, according to the German news agency DPA.

Saudi Arabia is the world’s third-biggest defence spender.