At a regional meeting of politicians, economists and analysts, the decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem was a hot topic, even though it was not officially on the agenda
Jerusalem, Iran and the fight against extremism dominate discussion at Manama Dialogue
UAE Minister of State Anwar Gargash said on Saturday that US president Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was "a gift to radicalism as radicals will use it to fan the language of hate".
He went on to say: "I am not worried about today, tomorrow and the day after, I am worried that some people will see the decision as a turning point, like the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. I hope this is not a watershed, but it is a worry."
This worry is shared among many.
Jordan’s foreign minister Ayman Al Safadi reiterated his country’s rejection of this move as "a contravention of UN resolution".
Iraq’s National Security Advisor, Faleh Al Fayadh, also denounced the American decision, saying Jerusalem is "sacred to all", and the American administration should have taken concerns into account.
At a regional meeting of politicians, economists and analysts, the decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem was a hot topic, even though it was not officially on the agenda, nor were there any Palestinian officials.
At the 13th meeting of the Manama Dialogue, speakers and participants discussed the challenges of the region, with a primary focus on both Iran’s actions in the region and the need to fight extremism.
In his remarks, Mr Gargash lamented the absence of a senior US official to explain the Jerusalem decision, a comment that was repeated by several attendees.
One familiar American figure at the Manama Dialogue was CIA director general David Petraeus, who said the US continues to play a "pivotal role" in the region. Mr Petraeus warned that reconciliation in Iraq may prove more challenging than the battle against ISIL.
Mr Petraeus also warned that ungoverned spaces will be exploited by both extremists and Iran in areas of Shia dominance.
Outgoing corresponding director of the Institute for International and Strategic Studies in Manama, Sir John Jenkins, set the tone of the event with a keynote speech on Friday night. Having spent 35 years in the region, Sir Jenkins said that he has witnessed "two major continuities: the sustained recovery and rise of Iran and the spread of radical and often violent forms of Islamist ideology".
He went on to say: "Iran and radical Islamists have fed on the discontents in this region that emerged from the flawed creation of the modern Middle East in 1920, the loss of Palestine, and the failure in many parts of the region to address the challenges of social inclusion, effective, responsive and distributive government and social justice."
In a session entitled ‘Political and military responses to extremism in the Middle East’, Gavin Williamson, UK Secretary of State for Defence, stated that "the counter-Daesh campaign" taught the UK three lessons. These are the need to fight "extremism on every front", the need to "win the battle of ideas", and lastly that "defeating terror needs strong global coalitions".
And Mr Williamson explained that this last lesson is "why we support Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s efforts to fight extremism and it is why we support Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi's government of unity in Iraq, and it is why we continue to call for a lasting political solution in Syria to neutralise the terrorist threat."
Mr Williamson also stressed that "[Syrian President Bashar] Al Assad is a barrier to peace, he created a space for Daesh, he represents the past and not the future".
In his address to the Manama Dialogue, Mr Gargash laid out the three elements of UAE policies to reduce the influence of extremism in the region.
He said the first was to "work very hard for a return to stability, after almost a decade of challenges affecting terrorism", clarifying that this relied on supporting the Westphalian model of the nation state.
He went on to say that these efforts "did not necessarily [mean] a return to the status quo but return to stability, where gaps [in security] have allowed major insurgencies to maintain a foothold; we saw this in Iraq and Syria". He congratulated the Iraqi forces for ejecting ISIL from its territories.
As for Yemen, Mr Gargash said the UAE is "tackling Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and we are working on denying a similar scenario as ISIL – thus we recaptured Mukallah".
As for coming to an end of the war in Yemen, Mr Gargash said there is a need for a political process with all Yemeni elements, including the Houthis.
He added: "We can actually play a role within [the] political process and necessary reconstruction we see there." He also said that Yemen is related to the second issue impacting the region, and that is that "Iran is playing a very disruptive role in the whole region".
Mr Gargash explained: "We are very worried about Iran’s ballistic missiles... we need to curb Iran’s offensive and exportable missile capabilities".
He explained that "through sectarian rhetoric and through building proxies", Iran is opening the region to extremism - "we face it every day".
He added: "We have to be cognisant of sectarian rhetoric – we see ourselves as a nation state, not a Sunni state."
As for the third element, Mr Gargash told the participants that "we cannot defeat terrorism without defeating the extremist narrative". He explained that this was at the heart of the Qatar crisis, and the need to stop the influence of elements like the Muslim Brotherhood in the region.
Mr Gargash said: "We were often seen as extreme in our views, but we do not feel alone in this view anymore – unfortunately because of events". He went to explain that "part of defeating extremism is rejuvenating the nation state, creating credibility for the nation state. Saudi, Egypt, Iraq are key here."
This is complimented with the effort to take control of each country’s security, explaining "we cannot just be financiers for our security – this explains our long engagement in Afghanistan, in Somalia, and our current engagement in Yemen".
Mr Gargash added "a robust and stable region requires our contribution, and it cannot just be a financial contribution".
On another note, the issue of Iraq’s militias and popular mobilisation units was one that was raised frequently in Manama.
In the opening plenary, Bahrain’s foreign minister Sheikh Khalid Al Khalifa said that Iraq’s PMU’s should be considered a "terrorist organisation" under the direction of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps General Qassem Suliamani.
Iraq’s National Security Advisor, Faleh Al Fayadh who is also the head of the PMU organisation, responded in a following session, saying it was "an internal matter".
As efforts to defeat extremism in the region and push back Iran’s policies, the role of non-state actors and militant groups will remain a key challenge, with no clear demobilisation plans for militias in Iraq and a digging in of the Houthis in Yemen.