The visible security cordon around the annual Manama Dialogue, the air-conditioned meeting rooms and all the theatre of government protocol belie the sense of unease that has permeated this premier regional security conference, organised by the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS).
The region is still coming to terms with the consequences of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 which tipped the chessboard of Middle Eastern power politics upside down.
Most of those consequences are unwelcome to the oil-rich Gulf Arab states.
In Iraq, the despotic Sunni regime of President Saddam Hussein has been replaced by a Shia-led government seen by many here as a proxy of Iran.
The subsequent marginalisation of Iraq’s Sunni population in recent years helped give rise to the violent jihadist group calling itself Islamic State (IS).
Today, the region’s leaders are looking nervously at a range of threats, both within their borders and beyond.
The ‘cult’ of Daesh (‘Islamic State’)
Using the Arabic term ‘Daesh’ for the so-called Islamic State, Saudi Arabia’s urbane Foreign Minister, Adel Jubeir, said the organisation that has seized large parts of Iraq and Syria under its black banner was not a religious movement but a cult.
Thousands of Saudis have joined its ranks, drawn by the similarities to some of their own country’s strict, ascetic interpretations of Islam.
This year Saudi Arabia has suffered several deadly attacks by IS suicide bombers, mostly targeting mosques, both Sunni and Shia, as the militant group attempts to provoke a sectarian conflict in the Gulf.
Bahrain announced that it had identified 70 of its nationals fighting for IS and a further 24 individuals have been charged with trying to form a branch of IS in Bahrain. Sixteen of these suspects remain at large.
The Saudi foreign minister categorised those would-be jihadists who go off to join IS in three ways.
- Idealists, who he said were ‘redeemable’.
- Sectarians who went to fight for a cause (defending fellow Sunni Muslims) but found the war was not what they expected.
- Lost people seeking a cause. These, said Mr.Jubeir, were young men who had been in and out of jails and were now trying to atone for their sins.
Britain’s Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond gave a keynote speech to the conference in which he admitted that the UK had been “too slow in the past to recognise the links between non-violent extremism and violent extremism.”
He added: “For decades we have clung to a false distinction between the two.. With hindsight, we’ve been too tolerant of intolerance.”
Britain, he said, would shortly be introducing legislation to ban the most dangerous extremist organisations.
Iran’s wealth unleashed
There is a fair degree of nervousness here about how Iran will spend the soon-to-be-released billions of dollars in unfrozen funds as a result of the UN-backed nuclear deal.
Many of the Gulf Arab states see Iran as a strategic threat even without its nuclear programme, which Iran says is purely for peaceful purposes.
Both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have accused Iran of interfering in their countries and exporting terrorism. On a visit to London last month a senior Iranian official strongly denied this.
“We want to have the best possible relations with Iran,” said Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir without a hint of irony, (Iran and Saudi Arabia are regional rivals with a history of mutual distrust).
“But the reason they are not good is because of Iran’s interventions in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen and its attempts to destabilise Bahrain”.
Mr Jubeir said Saudi Arabia welcomed the Iran deal but that Iran had huge infrastructure challenges and the region did not yet know whether it would spend the proceeds from the deal on developing its infrastructure at home – or on funding what he called “aggressive policies” abroad.
Bahrain recently expelled the Iranian ambassador after blaming it for supplying a major arms cache to insurgents. There were no Iranian officials at this year’s Manama Dialogue.
But Nazenin Ansari, a London-based Iranian journalist for Kayhan newspaper, attending the conference, told me that “there are different (power) centres with different agendas in Iran.
“The Foreign Ministry would like to have a more civilised and a more cordial relationship with the outside world and to be able to reintegrate Iran into the outside world.. But there are those in Iran who see this as a death knell for their power structures within Iran and they will use every means at their disposal to put a stop to that.”
Bombs in Bahrain
In a side room of the conference Bahrain’s Chief of Police, Maj-Gen Tariq Al-Hassan showed delegates round a chilling display of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), claymore mines, machine guns and grenades discovered by security forces here over the last four years.
Bahrain has been wracked by more than four years of intermittent protests that have cost the lives of 22 people, 11 of them policemen.
The police chief said a total of 445 IEDs had been uncovered, all exported by Iran. The US Navy, whose powerful 5th Fleet is headquartered in Bahrain, has been providing the Bahrainis with intelligence tip-offs.
Although the violence has subsided considerably from its peak in 2011, human rights organisations still accuse the Bahraini authorities of abuses.
Opposition activists and journalists have previously accused the government of exaggerating the threat from terrorism but a senior British military officer present said the finds on display were all genuine.
Syrian conflict unresolved
The conflict raging in Syria has dominated this year’s Manama Dialogue. The Saudi foreign minister, just back from the talks in Vienna, sounded pessimistic about the chances of any imminent breakthrough.
Although there had been agreement on some more minor points there remained two serious sticking points dividing those supporting and opposing Syria’s embattled President Bashar al-Assad. These were:
- The date of departure of President Assad. Saudi Arabia and its allies “would like him to leave this afternoon preferably”. Iran, largely backed by Russia, wants him to stay
- The date of departure of Iranian forces from Syria. Iran denies having combat troops in Syria, only ‘advisors’. Saudi Arabia says thousands have been sent, along with Iran’s proxy army in Lebanon, Hezbollah, and calling them “an occupying army” it wants them to leave.
The US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken found himself on the defensive over US policy on Syria. He announced a further $100m in aid for the Syrian opposition and insisted that progress was being made against IS in Iraq.
Yemen war – the final phase?
As a country on the extreme southwest tip of the Arabian Peninsula, what happens in Yemen concerns all six Gulf Arab states and there was much discussion of the seven-month war there that has cost more than 4,000 lives.
Saudi Arabia and Bahrain reiterated their view that blame lay with the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels who took over much of the country last year.
But international concern over civilian casualties has been mounting, especially those caused by Saudi-led air strikes.
The Saudi foreign minister said he believed the war had now entered its final phase and that a deal based on a UN Security Council resolution was possible.
Embarrassingly for the conference organisers however, two respected Yemeni delegates were expelled from Bahrain at the request of Yemen’s acting Foreign Minister, Riyadh Yasseen, claiming incorrectly that they were Houthis.
One even had to leave midway through a conference workshop session. The move has been widely criticised as being completely contrary to the spirit of “a dialogue” and has painted both the Bahraini authorities and Yemen’s exiled government in a poor light.