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Enhancing partnerships through the Manama Dialogue

The presence of some of the most senior global figures for international diplomacy, like Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubair and British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond underlines the strategic importance of the IISS Manama Dialogue. Indeed, the issues the conference is discussing have never been more crucial for the region and the world.

Syria is obviously at the forefront of people’s minds, but so is Yemen, Iran, the threat of international extremism, Iranian interference and a host of other issues.

The Conference also comes at a sensitive time, given an increasing tendency by entities in the West to question the nature of relationships between Arab and Western nations. Certain political commentators have been upping their criticism of Saudi Arabia and other GCC States and pressuring the US and European governments to downgrade their relations accordingly.

The “Corbyn effect”

For example, every time that there are allegations of civilian casualties in Yemen, these voices question why weapons are sold to the GCC. Every time NGOs circulate a specific human rights case, the same voices ask “why do we have diplomatic relations with such people?” And every time that examples are cited illustrating how the governing systems of GCC states are different, we get the same voices telling us “these states are still ruled by kings - they must be ripe for revolution”!!!

In the UK, these voices have been given a new lease of life by the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition, who has devoted his life to extreme left-wing causes and opposing GCC monarchies, while acting as an apologist for Iran and Hezbollah.

It seems to be Corbyn’s advocacy on a British deal to support Saudi Arabia on prison reform which backed the British Prime Minister into a corner and resulted in this deal – which was to be beneficial for both sides – to be cancelled.

Boycotting education, health & housing

We have seen various pro-Iran and anti-Bahrain figures attacking Bahrain’s diplomatic relations on similar grounds over the past five years. If these figures had been listened to, a Prince of Wales-supported scheme for providing low-cost housing to under-privileged Bahrainis would have been blocked; Bahraini medical students would have been barred from receiving their accreditation from the Irish Medical Council; the Scottish Qualifications Authority would have been prevented from conducting work to support education standards of Bahraini school children; and the British Embassy would not have done important work for encoyraging judicial and prisons reform.

To most right-thinking people it is completely obvious that Western governments and organizations should be supporting such initiatives. If the Saudi authorities are open to British support to improve conditions in domestic prisons and help them address their human rights record, of course this support should be provided.

There are too many examples from recent decades showing that if a particular government wants to improve the status of human rights and the rule of law in their country, the best response is not to impose sanctions, issue ultimatums and downgrade diplomatic ties.

Boycotting human rights support!!!

A particularly bad example of this kind of trend in the media is a 2 November article by the Independent newspaper, full of righteous indignation at the British Foreign Secretary’s attendance at an event to lay the foundation stone for the UK’s permanent new naval base in Bahrain. There is no discussion of the fact that given the escalating regional threats, such a base is probably necessary; and there is simply a bit of predictable quotes from human rights figures and Bahrain oppositionists, such as Ahmed Alwadaei, who seems to have appeared in almost every foreign media article on Bahrain in recent months.

The sad and naïve ideas that politicians should effectively boycott everyone have worryingly become a part of political discourse and they ignore the pragmatic realities of the world we live in. In order to address global challenges we have to engage with governing systems different from our own; in order to resolve regional crises we have to collaborate with imperfect partners; and sometimes, in order to avert humanitarian crises and major threats, there is a need for a military coalition.

Global partnerships

Today, American policy in the region lies in pieces. Just a few years after the withdrawal of US troops, Iraq is a failed and fundamentally divided state; and President Obama has been forced to soften his position on Assad, because he fears that the Syrian regime will collapse altogether and ISIS will take over the entire country.

Never has it been more important that Western and GCC states work hand-in-hand to address this huge mess and restore stability and peace to the numerous Arab nations that are today in a state of war. We have seen what happens when particular states try to wade in and solve a complex regional issue unilaterally, those heeding the clear messages by the senior speakers at the IISS Manama Dialogue will take on board that the only strategy for addressing the current challenges is a multilateral one.

We all have to work harder to understand each other and respect each other’s objectives and aspirations, but at the same time we must be giving less oxygen to the voices which are trying to undermine this important East-West relationship. Every time a bilateral trade deal is announced or an MOU is signed, there can’t be these senseless existential debates about whether these two countries should even be talking to each other in the first place.

Understanding the GCC on its own merits

Of course there will always be tricky issues which need addressing; with millions of GCC nationals visiting Europe each year and hundreds of thousands of Europeans living and working in the GCC, there will inevitably be sensitive issues of citizens who have got themselves into trouble abroad, but this shouldn’t be the trigger for a media witch-hunt against an entire nation which forces a prime minister to make a radical shift in diplomatic ties.

In this light, the recent letter by the Saudi Ambassador in the Telegraph newspaper warning of the damage of such developments to bilateral ties and trade relations is entirely explicable. When too much attention is given to these anti-GCC lobbyists, many of whom have doubtful sources of funding, the result is often a biased view of a particular nation. 

Bahrain is by far one of the most progressive and tolerant states in the region, but by repeating the same outdated grievances again and again and again, these lobbyists create a totally false perception. The same goes for the other GCC states, which are based on very different governing models, but all should be understood on their own merits. 

Constructive or hostile criticism?

We can all agree that constructive criticism is a good thing; as is international support to strengthen the rule of law and enhance human rights. The kind of attacks which have given rise to offence are those which implicitly or overtly run as follows: “The Bahrain Government has locked somebody up on terrorism charges – Therefore the West must support the opposition’s attempts to seize power”.

In some cases, the criticisms which have circulated in the media have a degree of validity. The problem is that those who are pedaling these criticisms have an entirely hostile agenda. 

In Jordan, Morocco and the Gulf states, the monarchial system has proved the most popular and resilient during the storms of the so-called Arab Spring period. There is not space here to argue the merits of monarchy, and particularly the Constitutional Monarchy model, as seen in Bahrain, Jordan and Morocco. However, even if you have reservations about a monarchial system and its ability to pursue the path of reform and deliver high standards of living for all its citizens – we can at least agree that the political system in these monarchies today is infinitely preferable to that of Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, where attempts at revolution and regime change have been a disaster.

So for the foreseeable future, the GCC States are the best hope for regional stability and progress and the only prospect for addressing the huge challenges facing the region are through close cooperation and dialogue with these States.

We all want to see peace and stability in the region and we all want to address the challenge of extremism and terrorism. In order to best achieve that, we need to understand each other a little more, listen to each other a little more and treat each other with a little more respect.

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