The Manama Dialogue

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Dr John Chipman is Director-General and Chief Executive of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, a leading Think Tank focusing on international security. Dr Chipman spoke with The Majalla about the “Manama Dialogue”, the key Regional Security Summit which has taken place every year in Bahrain since 2004. This year’s summit will take place from the 11 to the 13 of December 2009. Dr Chipman explained the other activities that the IISS has been developing in the region; and expressed his views on crucial security matters such as a nuclear armed Iran; the modernization of military systems and weapons control in the Gulf; and the future of NATO in Afghanistan. Dr Chipman received his BA in History from Harvard, an MA in International History from the London School of Economics, and an M. Phil and a D. Phil in International Relations from Balliol College Oxford. He joined the IISS as Research Associate in 1983-1984, during which time he was also a NATO fellow.

London , 1 December 2009

The Majalla: Can you explain to our readers what the Manama Dialogue in Bahrain is?

The idea of the Manama dialogue is to create an intergovernmental forum where foreign ministers, defence ministers, national security advisers, and chief of defence staffs, in short, the national security establishments of the key countries of the region and most important outside powers that have a political and security engagement in the region can meet on a regular basis.

In the Gulf, aside from Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), there is no regional security mechanism that permits the national security establishments of the states having a stake in Gulf security to engage in defence diplomacy with each other.

There have been frequent calls for a kind of OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] for the Middle East to be established, and what we are trying to do at the IISS is, under the umbrella of the IISS, to create the conditions under which this kind of defence diplomacy can be conducted.

The Majalla: In spite of being recent, the prestige of the Manama Dialogue is already very high. Why do you think this is?

I think from the very first year, the government delegates to the Manama Dialogue realized that there was no other forum that allowed for informal exchanges of this kind. Each of the prime ministers, foreign ministers, and government ministers, who address the conference appreciate the possibility to give their perspectives on national, regional and foreign security policy. But the principal advantage for them is the private bilateral meetings and the multilateral meetings they have. And I would emphasize this is not just multilateral meetings between the various Middle Eastern states that participate, or even between the Western states and the Middle Eastern states that participate, but also crucially between Asia Pacific states who are now having a more important role in Arabian Gulf security.

The Majalla: It is believed that diplomacy has been moving from the traditional state-to-state sphere to other types of forums. Is the Manama Dialogue a good example of this?

I think you could argue that, to a degree, the Manama Dialogue represents the privatization of diplomacy. Where it would have taken many more years for the governments of the region to organize for themselves such a meeting, because the IISS is a private organization, with an international character, acting with no agenda of its own, it was able to perhaps move more speedily to assemble these personalities for this meeting. But it is up to the regional players to use it for their own benefit. We provide the platform, and then it is up to the government representatives to take that opportunity, seize it, and use it to develop more interesting and mutually beneficial policies for regional security.

The Majalla: The press coverage of the event is certainly good for business, but considering the high level guests and the sensitivity of the topics discussed, does it discourage guests to express their opinions and provide insightful information?

I don’t think that. What is interesting is that because you have all these ministers from the region giving public speeches that are on the record, it compels these governments to think about what is the most important message that they want to deliver in this public forum. And we designed the Manama dialogue so that there would be a public element to it, so that these issues of security did not appear as opaque and secretive as many in the region might fear and many outsiders often are concerned by that as well.

So the public element of the forum is crucially important, because it creates transparency, and it helps to establish perhaps the basis for better confidence. The fact also that the speeches aren’t just delivered and that is the end of it, but that the experts that we gather can cross-examine the ministers in public and ask them sensitive questions is important.

Last year for example, when US secretary of Defence Gates spoke about the campaign in Afghanistan, he was asked very sensitive questions about how long the United States might wish to be there and he provided very frank answers. For example saying that while the government in the United States might approve an increase in troop numbers that was requested by the commanders, he personally was concerned about having too large a footprint, a military footprint in Afghanistan, for too long a period. And I think this gave a much stronger understanding to those in the region about the finely balanced arguments that take place within the US on these kinds of issues that perhaps otherwise are not exposed in the region.

But the Manama dialogue is also designed to have private sessions, off the record sessions, where the ministers and senior government officials speaking are not going to be quoted by the press, and are able to have a genuine exchange with experts.

Finally, there is a third element, where the private bilateral and multilateral meetings that the ministers organize for themselves which the IISS has nothing to do with at all. But we are aware of the multiple meetings that take place, which obviously is one of the reasons that the ministers are very keen to come and stay for longer than half a day.

The Majalla: Will Robert Gates deliver the keynote address this year as happened in 2007 and 2008?

What I can say is that this is going to be a very big US delegation, with a number of senior players from the State Department, the Pentagon, the National Security Council, and the White House, all participating. And the United States is taking seriously this year the Manama dialogue as it has done in previous years.

We are also expecting to receive an important Iranian delegation this year, led by a minister and with participation from the various elements of the Iranian national security establishment, and so we are hoping that the Manama dialogue will create an opportunity for more diplomacy between the states of the region and Iran, and countries from other parts of the world that are concerned with regional stability.

The Majalla: What will be the main topics of discussion this year and how did you define these?

I think there are essentially four. One will be the war and turmoil in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We will have strong delegations from Afghanistan and Pakistan and I think the states of the Gulf are very concerned with the stability of Pakistan, and with the future of the campaign in Afghanistan. Some of them are in fact involved in providing economic assistance, some are involved in providing diplomatic facilities for eventual discussions with the Taliban, and some even are providing discretely some direct military assistance to the campaign. And so engaging the Gulf Arab states in the debate on the future of Afghanistan and Pakistan is we think very important. 

A second big issue is of course still Iraq. There are elections to take place in Iraq next year, while much of the international focus has been in the Afghan and Pakistan campaign, the stabilization of Iraq is not yet 100% complete and for the region it is very important. The Manama dialogue I think has played an important in role in the last five years in developing more confidence between the Gulf Arab states and Iraq, who were at times sceptical about the nature of the Iraqi government and were concerned about hints of its sectarian qualities. And I think the Manama dialogue can work as a confidence building measures to develop stronger links between the GCC countries and Iraq.

I think a third issue will be the war in Yemen and the involvement of Saudi Arabia in that conflict, and the tactics and strategy that Saudi Arabia has pursued. We look forward to hearing from the delegation of Yemen on what its perceptions are about how that conflict might develop.

And finally there will be the Iranian question, which manifests itself in a variety of different ways. And giving the dramas over the last few months over the Iranian nuclear file, I think there will be great interest in what the Iranian delegation has to say about that, but also about its perceptions of the future regional security architecture, and how one can be developed that accommodates the interests of all countries of the Gulf region, not just one or two.

The Majalla: Apart from the Manama Dialogue, what other activities related with the Middle East is the IISS developing?

We are delighted that early this year we signed an agreement with the Kingdom of Bahrain to establish a regional branch for the Middle East in Bahrain. So we will have offices in the Financial Harbour that we will be opening in 2010. We will be bringing some analysts from Europe and North America to that office, but we will also be hiring analysts from within the Gulf to work in our Bahrain office to ensure that we have perspectives from the region. We will also be having people from South Asia working in our Gulf office, especially from India. And the Middle East office established in Bahrain will also work with other GCC countries.

We have an important conference that we run every year in Oman on radicalism in South Asia, involving delegations from Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh.

We have in the past run meetings on water resources in south Asia and Abu Dhabi. We have done conferences in Saudi Arabia and Qatar as well.

And so we hope this IISS Middle East office in Bahrain will serve to bring analytical perceptions from the rest of the world to the Middle East, and also give a voice to the Middle East in Asia, Europe, Latin America, Africa, and North America, so that all the regions of the world that have now gained a great deal of economic and political interest in the Gulf understand the perceptions from the region. That is how we conceive about the IISS Middle East office in Bahrain and we think that it will be a way of bringing more into the mainstream of the international debate the perspectives of the region.

The Majalla: We would be grateful to have your views on a few strategic and security matters in the Middle East. Arms imports to the Middle East have dropped significantly in the last couple of decades. Will a nuclear armed Iran change this tendency?

There has been an interest in a number of GCC countries in modernizing their armed forces, their aircraft and their air defences. Clearly, for some countries, especially the UAE, the ambiguity about Iran’s strategic posture is a spur to developing more modern military systems. What is also becoming more important is to find better ways for the GCC to coordinate air defences in particular, and one of the interests that some of the governments from outside the region will have in engaging with players of the Manama dialogue would be to see how greater efficiencies can take place in GCC air defences and more coordination, because the place is too small for one country to handle its air defences on its own.

The Majalla: There is a sense of apathy of Arab countries when it comes to dealing with Iran’s nuclear plans. Do you agree? And why do you think this is?

It is understandable that Gulf Arab states in particular don’t want to be at the centre of this very intense diplomatic dispute. On the other hand, they are the ones to be first affected if Iran will one day gain a nuclear weapon, or to be able to threaten the region in some way because of the confidence that will soon acquire a nuclear weapon. And so my own view is that it is important for the states of the region to find some way to become part of the negotiations and discussions with Iran. The example I always use is the example of the six party talks in Korea, where there has been concern about North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme. There, crucially the states of the region, South Korea, Japan and China, are directly engaged in negotiations and discussions, and I believe that countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey should at least informally be engaged in the so-called “5+1” discussions that have taken place with the Islamic republic of Iran. Sometimes you hear these states concerned that the 5+1 will do a deal with Iran over their heads, sometimes you hear concerns that the kind of pressure they are imposing on Iran is not appropriate to arrive at an agreed solution. Both of these concerns, at each extreme, would be resolved if they were more involved in the discussions, and I think countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey, who would be amongst the first affected by a failure of the diplomacy with Iran, they should engaged more intensely from the start.

The Majalla: What do you make of the speculation that Gulf countries might buy nuclear warheads from Pakistan in order to balance Iran?

I don’t think that is likely but it is one of those rumours that is hugely fuelled in the Gulf. There have been concerns expressed in the West that the long time strategic relationship between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan might permit such an arrangement.

I don’t think that is likely. I do think what is important though is for there to be a dialogue between the P5 states of the UN Security Council with the Gulf Arab states about how their security might be guaranteed in the event that diplomacy with Iran would fail. There have been concerns expressed that Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey might revise their views about whether they might one day develop nuclear weapons if the Iranians do acquire them for themselves. So really part of what the P5 needs to do is, in the first instance, succeed in their diplomacy with Iran, but if that would to fail, find a way to extend certain guarantees to the states of the region that wouldn’t require them to get nuclear weapons of their own. And there are some discussions in expert circles that haven’t yet entered the formal public domain, about whether one day there would need to be nuclear guarantees given to these states, the so-called “extended deterrence”, provided to the states of the region. And these debates are still very very quiet and they haven’t yet been engaged in by foreign ministers or defence ministers, but I think it is one of those things that quietly people are talking about, and which Iran might want to consider in slowing down its progress towards developing a nuclear option, because it would be unfortunate if the region became subject to a formal balance of nuclear power, but that would be better than having competitors unilaterally developing nuclear power.

The Majalla: What is the state of arms control agreements in the region?

Well there are not very many arms control agreements in the region that really assist in the development of the kind of formal balance of power that we had in the old days between East and West in Europe. And there is an incomplete involvement of some of the states of the region in some of the global arms control arrangements. However, there is more interest for example in initiatives such as the Proliferation Security Initiative, the so-called “PSI”, and obviously the current dramas about piracy in the region are inspiring states to look much more closely at the coordination of efforts to combat problems of piracy, so I think the prospect for more coordinated diplomacy on security issues, because of the variety of new threats that are emerging, is there, and that is something we would like to inspire in the Manama Dialogue.

The Majalla: You were a NATO Fellow. Do you believe NATO can be successful in Afghanistan? And what does “success” mean there?

I think it was always a mistake to make the success of the campaign in Afghanistan a litmus test for the NATO Alliance. Especially as the mission in Afghanistan became defined over the last few years as grander and grander, so much so that at one point it appeared that success could only be achieved in Afghanistan if we were developing a sort of a Western-style democracy. I think what is happening now is that we are going to redefine the mission in Afghanistan to its original purpose which was to ensure that Afghanistan will never again be a place from which organized terrorist attacks internationally could take place. That requires changing the balance of power with the Taliban, but it does not require its comprehensive and total defeat. Some diplomatic work will need to be done to find ways to inspire lower level Taliban to, if not directly support the government, not oppose it using violent means. If this more modest definition of success in Afghanistan takes place, and the right application of force, diplomacy and development assistance is deployed, there is no reason why NATO and the wider international community engaged in Afghanistan, shouldn’t succeed over the next few years.

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