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Manama Dialogue – From the Aisles

December 6, 2010

Following on from my last post on the 7th International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) Regional Security Summit – the Manama Dialogue, which ended yesterday, here are some more impressions of the event.

Frisson of the Week:

Hillary Clinton and Manouchehr Mottaki, foreign minister of Iran: did he say hello? The two sat close to each other at the opening session. She said hello to him, but according to her, he turned away and didn’t say hello to her. He said that he did say hello. If they couldn’t produce a joint communiqué on a basic courtesy, there’s a long way to go before any accomodation will be in sight. Let’s hope the back-channels were more productive.

Most Impressive Speaker

King Abdullah of Jordan: the King delivered an eloquent address on the Israel/Palestine problem. His main messages were that time is running out for a two-state solution, that “politics as usual” is not enough, and that the choice for Israel is true democracy or apartheid. This was the first time I’d heard the King. Speaking in English, his message was clearly for a wider audience than just the Middle East. Many world leaders radiate ego and self-importance from the podium. The most impressive quality the King showed was humility. His speech was a conversation rather than a diatribe.

Most Impressive Speaker – Runner Up

Sheikh Dr Muhammad Al Sabah Al Salem Al Sabah, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Kuwait: At the end of a long day of speeches, the Sheikh was a breath of fresh air. For starters, he began with a story, a rhetorical technique seemingly lost on the other speakers. Perhaps they felt that their subjects were no laughing matter. We were treated to a commentary on changes in the polarity of power, the growth of the UN (41 affiliated NGOs in the 40s, over 3000 today), the implications of demographic shifts between “old North” and “new South”, and the employment challenges facing the Middle East. He struck me as the kind of person with whom you could have an entertaining couple of hours on a terrace somewhere.

Most Impressive Personality

Prince Turki Al Faisal: Prince Turki is a member of the al-Faisal branch of the Saudi Royal Family – sons of the late King Faisal. Like his brothers, Saud al-Faisal, the foreign minister and Khalid Al-Faisal, the governor of Mecca, Prince Turki has the look of his father, perhaps the greatest of the Saudi kings who have followed the founder, King Abdulaziz. Founder of the modern Saudi intelligence service, he speaks with a measured authority. I watched him during a panel discussion on Yemen’s problems. When he wasn’t speaking, he was staring out at the audience as if sizing up those who were in front of him. Still, watchful and inscrutable, like a hawk. Like his father.

Best Anecdote

I was talking with a delegate from the Middle East about the personal style of Arab leaders, comparing the inscrutability of Prince Turki with the animation and emotional style of others who were on the podium. He told me that he once worked for the United Nations on the staff of Kofi Annan, the Secretary General of the time. In a meeting he attended between Annan and a notoriously eccentric Arab leader, the leader started berating the Secretary General, waving his arms in the air and making aggressive pointing gestures. The bewildered Annan was left with the impression that the leader was about to attack him. He turned to my friend, and said “what’s going on?”. “Don’t worry”, said my friend, “this is his usual style when he wants to make his point”. Annan replied that if the leader had used that body language in Ghana (Annan’s home country), someone would have killed him. A lesson in cultural misunderstanding.

On a more serious note, perhaps this is at the heart of the Wikileaks story about King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia urging American diplomats to “cut off the head of the snake” when referring to Iran. The vivid nature of the Arabic language, especially classical Arabic often used in speeches, has led to misunderstandings in translation more than once in the past. The utterances of Saddam Hussain come to mind. How do you translate “mother of battles”? Literally, or as a “significant conflict”? Likewise, do you interpret “jihad” as conflict or struggle? A very significant difference.

Historical Inaccuracy of the Week

Iranian Foreign Minister Mottaki’s assertion that the Balfour Declaration was a mechanism designed to enable Jewish refugees to enter Palestine after the Second World War. Wrong war, minister.

Mantra of the Week

Liam Fox, the UK Defence Minister’s oft-repeated assertion that his government’s quarrel with Iran, to paraphrase, is not with the people of Iran, but with its rulers. Straight out of the 1991 and 2003 pre-conflict phrasebook on Iraq……

Uniform of the Week

Well, there were a lot to choose from – generals and admirals, gold braid everywhere you looked, as well as the magnificent bishas worn by many of the civilian Arab delegates.  But for elegance and simplicity, the Iranian delegation took the prize. Dark suits, immaculate haircuts, and the tie-less shirts with high collars that have become as distinctively Iranian as Mao suits were in China not so long ago. Austere-looking and serious, they radiated discipline.

Discombobulation of the Week

The conference was well organized, as you would expect given that this is the seventh staging of the event, but Foreign Minister Mottaki’s press conference descended into chaos as the simultaneous interpretation technology hit a glitch. Expressions of frustration and “what the hell’s going on” among the interpreters broadcast to all and sundry caused much amusement, though not to the minister. Classic noises off.

And that was that, apart from one significant sign of globalization – the arrival of Japanese toilet technology in Bahrain. The Ritz Carlton Hotel boasts full carwash facilities in its lavatories – washing, drying, front and rear. Not sure about waxing though. Happy days!

From → Middle East, Politics

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