Launched in 2004 by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), the Manama Dialogue has quickly become a very important diplomatic forum for a troubled Middle East. It provides a rare platform—in the form of conferences and private bilateral and multilateral meetings—for a number of Middle Eastern and international stakeholders from North America, Europe, and East Asia to address their key concerns about regional security.
Instability in Bahrain was an obstacle to the realization of last year’s Manama Dialogue; however, it returned on 7-9 December this year, in the context of unprecedented levels of uncertainty and turmoil in the region. The Majalla paid a visit to the IISS’s headquarters in London to speak with the Director-General and Chief Executive of the Institute, Dr. John Chipman, about this year’s session.
The Majalla: The IISS has been organizing the Manama Dialogue since 2004. Can you recall a year with so many crises developing simultaneously? How did you set the agenda for this year?
The idea of the Manama Dialogue was precisely to bring together foreign ministers and political leaders from all the countries that have a stake in Gulf security in order to discuss the strategic issues of the day. We worked hard during 2012 to prepare carefully for this meeting—more carefully than we prepared for any previous meeting—and indeed developed a Manama Dialogue Sherpa series. These senior officials, so-called Sherpas, met privately with the organizers in order to look at the issues of most concern to the region. So we held a Manama Dialogue Sherpa meeting in February 2012, and another one in October 2012, involving senior officials at the assistant-secretary/director level of the foreign ministries of participating countries to examine issues like Syria, Yemen and other questions that were of interest to Gulf security actors but that also engaged Europeans, North Americans, and Asians. So we felt we had a very well-prepared agenda this year; an agenda that was also adaptable to the issues of the day.
Q: Regarding Syria: As the conflict drags on, there is increasingly more talk from diverse sources about the means the Assad regime is using and might use to contain the armed opposition, including numerous references to the possible use of chemical weapons. Do you think this is part of a concerted diplomatic effort to prepare international public opinion for an intervention?
I think the concern expressed by many outside parties about the use of chemical weapons is a genuine concern about the horrific effect that such use would have on the Syrian people. Both the US government and key European governments have said that deployment for the purposes of the use of chemical weapons would be a red line that might affect their attitude on how to engage with the Syrian conflict. At the Manama Dialogue, the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee in the United States, Congressman Mike Rogers, felt that any appearance of preparation for the use of chemical weapons would be a red line from his point of view and for the United States. I don’t think that the United States and the European powers are very keen directly to intervene in the Syrian conflict, but the use of chemical weapons would be something that might change that calculus.
Q: In what form could this intervention take place?
If it appears that there are plans to use chemical weapons, there is always the option to employ air power to interdict the deployment of such weapons; there has been talk about the potential use of Special Forces. Interestingly, at the Manama Dialogue the minister of state of foreign affairs of Qatar [Dr. Khalid Bin Mohammad Al-Attiyah] called for the international community to provide opposition forces in Syria with MANPADS, portable air-defence weapons. When questioned as to whether that was the safe thing to do, the minister said that it would be prudent to deploy these under supervision. Supervision implies the presence of Special Forces to assist in the use of MANPADS by rebel forces. These are all possible, but at the moment still theoretical, uses of potential armed force in Syria by outside actors.
Q: There is a widespread notion that the US administration still does not have a strategy, not only for Syria but for the Middle East and to deal with the Arab Spring; that there is a lack of leadership. Was this view shared in this year’s Manama Dialogue?
I think many people asked tough questions of the US leadership that was represented at the Manama Dialogue, US Deputy Secretary of State [William Burns] and the US Congressional delegation with both democratic and republican components about what the United States priorities were in the region. Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns set out four principles that govern the US approach to the region, but I think many of the participants were keen to cross-examine him as to how those principles translate into real practice across the geography of the Middle East. I think the most important call that came not only from participants, but from other ministers present, was for the United States not to waste any further time in re-engaging on the Israeli-Palestinian file. UK Foreign Secretary William Hague made a very powerful statement calling on the United States to get strongly engaged again; now that there was a second term the president [Obama] need not to be worried about re-election; and that a really strong engagement before to the chance of a two-state solution evaporated under settlements was a high priority.
Q: If the internationalists gain the upper hand over the isolationists, could a more assertive US strategy do any good—not only for Middle East stability but for the image of the US in the region?
I think the region is sometimes schizophrenic about US engagement. When there is a lot of US engagement, they worry about too much direction of a US policy agenda in the region. When the US steps back, they worry about US indifference to the concerns of the region. This is something that happens with the US image in Europe and in Asia equally. There was a lot of concern expressed about whether the pivot to Asia announced earlier this year by the Obama administration meant a lesser effort in the Middle East, and the US officials present at the Manama Dialogue were at pains to stress that the Middle East would remain a very big priority for the United States. When challenged as to whether that priority would persist even in the face of the United States’ shale gas discoveries that would reduce their dependence on the Middle East energy exports, they said that the fact that other parts of the world were dependent on Middle East energy exports meant that the United States, as a global power, continued to have a very strong stake in Middle East stability. The global economy depends on an easy flow of oil and gas exports from the Middle East to other parts of the world, on which the United States economy relies for its future growth, and so the US will remain engaged.
Q: Talking about economics, this was and is a central issue behind the Arab Spring, and it is perhaps the key concern of the future of Arab states. Of course, the purpose of the Manama Dialogue is to promote security cooperation in the Middle East, and security and strategic issues are the IISS’s areas of expertise. Nevertheless, do you think that at next year’s Manama Dialogue we might see a couple of panels on the economic challenges faced by Arab states, like Egypt for example?
In fact, the IISS organized immediately after the Manama Dialogue a specialists’ seminar on the economics of the new Middle East—and it had specific panels on Egypt. We are very aware of the economic issues; we have a very large economics program run out of our Bahrain office in Manama. We devote a huge amount of time to the relationship between economics and security. The fact that economics was not specifically on the agenda does not mean that economics did not come up a lot. There was a great deal of discussion about how the sectarian issues in the Middle East can become aggravated when one sect believes that it is disadvantaged economically, and that is what gives more fuel to sectarian tensions and concerns. The blend between economic disadvantage and sectarian dissent was clearly analyzed and discussed in the Manama Dialogue, and I think there was an appreciation that ensuring a more even distribution of wealth in Arab countries was also a condition precedent to stopping the rise of sectarian conflict.
Q: When the Arab Spring started to unfold, there was plenty of hope about a new, more positive era for many Arab states. Given the increasing fears about growing extremism and sectarianism in the region, do you think we might be actually witnessing the opposite?
I think there has been some facile talk of the Arab Spring turning into an Arab Winter and the initial promise of the Arab Spring for a liberal and secular future, for a more modernized Middle East polity, was beginning to dissipate. I think each country has to be taken on its own terms; there have been some disappointments. Obviously, in the case of Libya the inability of the international community and others to control the spread of weapons has meant that the Libyan crisis has translated into a very major crisis in Mali and in the Sahel. In the most dramatic case of the Arab Spring, which is Egypt, the controversy over the constitution has really been quite damning and now we have a situation where President Morsi comes from a constituency that has largely voted against the constitution that he has promulgated. I think there will be continuous concern in Egypt about how the right balance is struck between the victories of the revolution as interpreted by the Muslim Brotherhood and the victories of the revolution as interpreted by liberal, and business and trading elements of the society.
Q: In Yemen, are we witnessing an inevitable move towards North–South separation, again?
I wouldn’t say that there is an inevitable move towards separation. There are a number of de-facto splits and security situations that persist, but sound public policy and human intervention can often avoid the so-called ‘inevitable’ things becoming actually inevitable. I think there was an effort, especially by members of the Yemeni delegation to the Manama Dialogue, to remind people that there was a triple crisis in Yemen in which many actors were potentially engaged. One of the difficulties of there being so many issues on the table in the Middle East is that it is not possible for equal attention to be paid to all, and perhaps Yemen has suffered a little bit because of that.
Q: Is there any chance that next year we could be talking about Egypt in the same terms we talk about Syria today?
I don’t think so. I think the Syrian situation really is very unique. There will be continuous instability in Egypt as the various political forces discover the right balance between them all: the army, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the liberal and secular forces. Yet Egypt is a huge country, one in which so many countries have direct interest. There will be a lot of engagement by the international community to ensure that Egypt remains a modern trading nation and the economic stakes are very large in Egypt too. The international community is engaged through the IMF as well, so I think there are a lot of actors in the Egyptian drama, sufficient to deter the tragic fall into uncontrolled chaos as we have seen in Syria. I think the Egyptian body-politic is capable of continuing a debate with itself, but it will require the international community to urge all parties to ensure they carry on the debate and not only in the streets.
Q: And what was the feeling about forthcoming negotiations regarding Iran’s nuclear program? Now that sanctions are really starting to bite, is the Iranian leadership more willing to compromise?
As it happens the Manama Dialogue did not address the Iranian nuclear file that much. Unfortunately, unlike previous years, there was no delegation from Iran and there were so many other issues on the agenda, so my answer to that will be a personal response. I think both the United States and the current Iranian leadership are keen to find a way to advance the talks even if those talks have a bilateral component under the P5+1 process. But I think analytically, people are not certain if in the first 6 months of 2013, as the Iranian body politic prepares for fresh presidential elections, the Supreme Leader would be minded to conclude a materially important agreement with the United States before those elections take place. I think there is some hope that that would be possible, since the nuclear file is held very much by the Supreme Leader and not so much by the president, and therefore the Supreme Leader should have the personal authority to approve of an arrangement that would reduce concern over the Iranian nuclear program internationally. But there is some skepticism that that agreement could be negotiated before the elections, so we wait and see.