The 5-7 December Manama Dialogue for the International Institute for Strategic Studies came at a crucial time for the Middle East region. With growing instability in Syria and Iraq there has never been greater need for dialogue and a clear strategy between nations to counter the threats of extremism, sectarianism and Iran’s harmful role in the region.

For those of us who could not attend the conference and who did not have the time to follow hours of debates and plenary speeches, we have included some of the most interesting insights below from a variety of figures who participated in the event:

HRH Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, Bahrain Crown Prince

“If we are to call ourselves in a war with theocrats, then I believe that we can start to put together the military, social, political and maybe even economic policies in a holistic manner to counter this threat, as we did with communism. But what do we call it? Do we call it theocrism, to invent a word? Do we call it fascist theocracy? We must find a term that we can all share.

“The absurdity of having ISIL, ISIS, Daesh, all representing one group, al-Qaeda, and God knows what else in the future, allows us to hop blindly and haphazardly from one threat to the other without containing it within a complete paradigm.

Jamal Khashoggi, General Manager, Al Arab News Channel

“The danger of ISIS is real, and we need to spend much time understanding ISIS and understanding its root causes, because if we do not do that, ten years later many of us will be living in an ISIS country, in an ISIS territory, somehow or another.

John Baird, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Canada

“The antidote to sectarianism and the key ingredient to lasting stability, in my judgment, is pluralism. That is under siege as well. What is common in all of these divides is that they are being exploited to achieve regional and geopolitical ends with immense human costs. They are exploited by some sinister state actors who meddle in the state affairs of others for their own gain, as is too often the case with the state of Iran. Sectarianism is also exploited and emboldened by nefarious non-state actors, actors that wreak havoc across ungoverned expanses.

“We see this with Daesh, which has extended this divide across international borders, and we see it in some other militias, as well. Commander Soleimani of Iran’s al-Quds Force has been organizing Shia militias in Iraq since before 2010 and is happy to publicise that fact with selfies in social media. An agent of terror styling himself as a hero. Daesh is clearly the very real and current sectarian threat that we are facing here. However, we cannot lose sight of the potential for those sectarian Shia militias to rival it.”

Lord Richards, Senior Adviser, IISS; former Chief of the Defence Staff, UK

“We must be careful not to add further confusion through the loose use of terminology. Daesh, for example, may use terrorist techniques, but they possess all the trappings of a conventional army: they hold ground, they manoeuvre, they have tanks, artillery, identifiable commander control and logistic lines of supply…

“Furthermore, air power alone will also not be sufficient to drive back and then defeat Daesh; it can help prevent their future expansion, and certainly has done, but to push back and defeat them will require ground forces that can manoeuvre decisively.

“Unity of purpose and unity of command are prerequisites for any successful military operation. Discretionary wars too often lead to confused aims and incoherent command arrangements, the antithesis of what is needed. Here the GCC, as many in the organisation I know aspire to, would set a fine example by creating for themselves a militarily efficient joint command so that they are properly able to face up to future challenges together.”

Michael Fallon, British Defence Secretary

“When it comes to partnerships the UK starts from a strong base. We have many friends particularly here in the Gulf. Soon will be marking 200 years of friendship with Bahrain. Yet all friendships have room to grow.

“Our relationships with our Gulf allies are no different. Since our decision to withdraw our permanent presence in the Gulf forty years ago… we have often appeared driven by short-term imperatives.

“Our commitment has been described to me as “a single year’s engagement, 40 times over”. Old friends deserve better – that’s why engagement lies at the heart of our strategy.”

Philip Hammond, British Foreign Secretary

“The UK, Bahrain, and indeed, other GCC states share an intuitive understanding as sea-faring nations, that in a globalised world our domestic security and prosperity depend on developments beyond our shores. We must never lose sight of this simple truth.

“We must never allow the isolationists to convince our people of the superficially attractive proposition that distance, or oceans can insulate. In a globalised world they cannot.

“To our partners in the Gulf my message is this: Your security concerns are our security concerns… So our strategic priority for the Gulf and for the wider region is to build partnerships.  Partnerships for security; partnerships for prosperity; partnerships for stability.”

Dr Bassma Kodmani, Executive Director, Arab Reform Initiative

“The war focused on Iraq at the moment is perhaps making the Syrian situation more complex, rather than resolving it or even putting it on hold. The idea that we deal with Iraq first and Syria will come afterwards, there are some good reasons to believe that the risk is very high, that the consolidation of Daesh inside Syria is going to be stronger as a result of the war and the lack of a strategy for the Syrian theatre of operation. Yes, it is one. 

“What happens in Iraq has strong repercussions in Syria and vice versa, but the lack of a comprehensive strategy in Syria at the moment is definitely complicating the situation there in very alarming ways.

Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme, IISS

“Iran has been pursuing a nuclear hedging strategy for well over a decade. The question for the next seven months is whether Iran will be willing to put this hedging strategy on ice and for how long? I believe that Rouhani still wants to make a deal. I do not believe the Supreme Leader is ready to say yes to the conditions that would be required.

“Maybe the best we can hope for is that when Rouhani calls him the next time with the details of a proposed deal, Khomeini again will not answer the phone.

Faris Al Mazrouei, Ambassador UAE

“The true nature of terrorism, then, is not religious. Its true nature is harming innocent civilians, fomenting sectarianism, and violating human rights. It creates instability and undermines global order by seeking to expand its influence and redraw borders.

“Thus, it is truly a global problem that demands a global solution. Victory over extremism is possible, but only if those threatened by terrorism can come together and address the many factors that drive the terrorism dynamic.” 

Dr John Chipman, Director-General and Chief Executive, IISS

“The last two years have seen diplomatic freelancing on a large scale and competition for influence among nominally allied states. Ungoverned spaces have widened, and some of the newly governed spaces, especially in parts of Syria or Iraq, are held by unimaginably dangerous people. Sectarian politics have assumed a geopolitical shape, while regional competition for leadership has intensified.

“There are fears about the strategic consequences of a failed negotiation with Iran on its nuclear programme, but concerns also about the regional balance-of-power consequences of a successful conclusion to talks. Countries in the region have joined the coalition against ISIL in part because they see an overriding threat, in part to ensure that Washington does not somehow come to see Iran as an alternative partner, but also to bind the US into the region from which it seemed to be casually withdrawing in favour of an Asian vocation.” 

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