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New initiatives for regional peace: Lord Ahmad statement at the IISS Manama Dialogue 2023

It’s a pleasure to be back in Bahrain.  Indeed, I was saying to our Ambassador, and indeed Bahrain’s excellent ambassador to London, Sheikh Fawaz, for me over the last few years has become home away from home; according to my wife is it my home and I see her occasionally.  But this is an incredible country.  A country which has really demonstrated – as it’s doing so again today – its convening power.

Since then – since my last visit in Bahrain – the bilateral relationship has grown even stronger, including the visit that we celebrated of His Royal Highness Prince Salman’s visit in July.  And more recently, I’m proud to say that the two countries – the United Kingdom and Bahrain – have elevated our exchanges to our first strategic dialogue, which I had the honour to co-chair with my dear friend, his Excellency Dr Al Zayani in London.  And may I therefore thank the Kingdom of Bahrain for hosting us today for another important and timely event.

And I assure you the UK delegation here is in strengths.  They say you normally have one Lord; I can certainly look across this room and see several more: Lord Sedwill, Lord Maud, as well as other parliamentarians and business leaders are here, demonstrating the United Kingdom’s commitment to Bahrain; but also, importantly, the region.

Last year, when the then Foreign Secretary addressed you, he spoke in glowing terms about the transformation of the region; but also, importantly, of the threats that continue to face the region, indeed all of us.

In this context, Bahrain has shown, under His Majesty’s vision, continued leadership on peaceful coexistence and regional security.  We have seen the benefit of the Gulf region’s approach to foreign policy over the last year, including efforts to end the conflict in Sudan, hosting Ukrainian peace talks and, most recently, bringing the Arab world together in response to the crisis that we are all facing up to today in Israel, across Gaza and the West Bank.  These efforts have reconfirmed what we already knew: that you remain a vital partner now and for the future.

And as we’ve heard from the Secretary General and His Royal Highness in his detailed sense of experience over the years, we together face a daunting set of challenges.  And in this regard let me be absolutely clear: we, the United Kingdom, remains a reliable and a committed partner for the region in responding to the challenges and availing the opportunities that lie in front of us.

A partner working to constrain Iranian weapons proliferation and the destabilising activity of Iran and its aligned groups that are responsible for much instability across the region and further afield; a partner also holding Tehran to account for its escalatory nuclear programme.

A partner working together with other key partners in the region for security and peace in Yemen, in Libya.

A partner for prosperity with, and between, the nations of the Gulf.

And a partner working to support this region’s transition to net zero, that will help avert the most disastrous impacts of climate change that threaten the Gulf – indeed the world.

I say all of this because, despite and notwithstanding the importance and urgency of these and other challenges, it is natural, given the scale of the attack that occurred on Israel on the 7th of October, the scale of the suffering of innocent Palestinian civilians in the weeks since – that we are still seeing today – that our focus is on this region; on Gaza; on the Occupied Palestinian Territories; and the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians.

This ongoing conflict is not only a disaster for the region, it is a disaster for all of us: it is a disaster for our common humanity. 

The people of Gaza were already living under desperate conditions prior to this conflict; but now they are suffering more, without adequate food, water and access to the most basic of services we all take for granted, and in constant fear of their own live:; they deserve better from all of us – and I agree with you, your Royal Highness, it means a collective, collaborative effort.

It is also a disaster for the region and the world because conflict stokes division. It has led to alarming spikes of anti-Semitism; of Islamophobia; and yes, that has impacted my own country, the United Kingdom. 

And therefore, if we do not work together, collectively, collaboratively, this conflict will spread.  These aren’t just words, these are alarming signals we are seeing.  And we need to work together to stop this conflict from spreading.

The regional and international fault lines we have worked so hard over many, many years to bridge will tragically reopen, and the progress I have spoken of will be undermined.

Therefore what to do?  What should the international community be doing?

Well, coming together; discussing; exchanging views; candid, open public discussions – yes.  But private diplomacy and exchanges as well.

All focussed that in the immediate term we must stem the bloodshed, and do all we can to provide aid and security as quickly as possible to all people. 

Let me be clear, the UK has been very clear on this: that Israel had the right to defend itself against Hamas, against the act of terrorism that took place on the 7th of October.

Hamas, let us not forget, acted erroneously in the name of religion I follow, that many of you follow in this room, but has nothing to do with religion.

Hamas do not believe in peace.  The horrific atrocities against many nationalities – not just Israelis – also took the lives of the Jewish community in Israel, but there were a number of other faiths, including Muslims, as well.

Therefore Hamas poses an immediate threat to many, indeed to us all.  It itself has insisted it will repeat such atrocities, and, of course, an ultimate aim of ending the state of Israel.

Therefore it’s our collective interest that the kind of abhorrent events we saw on the 7th of October, the terrorism we see around the world – indeed the United Kingdom itself has been impacted by indiscriminate terrorism – that we work collectively to ensure these events do not happen.

But the UK has equally been clear that in defending such a right, Israel must – Israel must – respect international humanitarian law, and take every possible step to minimise harm to civilians.  Israel is a country, is a nation, with obligations to international law.

This also includes respecting the sanctity of hospitals, so that doctors – who do an incredible job as we are seeing for ourselves – can continue to care for the ill; the injured; the sick.

And the situation in much of Gaza now – particularly in hospitals as well, such as al-Shifa, where, tragically, young innocent children, babies have died as the result of lack of electricity – has become acute. 

Too many people; too many innocent children; too many babies; too many lives lost.  Every life matters, irrespective of Israeli or Palestinia; Jewish, Muslim or Christian.  Every life matters; humanity matters.

And that is why the UK, led by the Prime Minister, has been engaged widely, with our friends and allies, and partners in this region, including many of you here.  And, importantly, with the incredible aid agencies including the United Nations, to get life-saving aid to those in Gaza.  And let us pay tribute to those brave workers from the UN and other agencies who continue to work in conflict-affected zones.

We have more than doubled our support to the people of Gaza, committing over £30million.  And we continue to support through NGOs as well.  

We are looking constructively at what can be done immediately. We believe that land-borders present the best option for getting support where it is most needed, and we have been urging the Israeli government to allow for more access – not just through Rafah, but to open up the Kerem Shalom crossing as well.

We have consistently called for those spaces to be created for the delivery of unhindered and sustainable humanitarian aid through pauses.  Those spaces need to be created now, to allow for aid to be delivered.  

The four-hour pauses we have seen in northern Gaza are a first, but initial step only; we need longer corridors, time across all of Gaza, if we are to deliver what is needed.  And we need a collective effort to get this done.

On Wednesday, the UN Security Council called – and I quote – for “urgent extended humanitarian pauses for sufficient number of days to allow for aid access”.  And we must work towards this end. 

And as we’ve heard time and time again from this platform during the course of our deliberations: yes, we must work together for a durable, long-term two-state solution; but it must not be paper-based.  The time has come for action; we need to pull out the stops now.  The time is critical to act. 

The UK believes that lasting peace can only be achieved through that two-state solution.  Not as a vision, but as a reality. 

We agreed on Gaza at the G7 and with other countries.  The steps were laid out by Secretary Blinken, and we stand by those.  Not a path that exists only in principle, or in the minds of diplomats or officials; but – as we’ve seen today – not again a cycle of repeated resolutions that make too little difference on the ground.  We need a real pathway: a pathway to peace; a pathway which is real: to restore hope in the future for all the peoples of the region; a hope – ladies and gentlemen, your Excellencies – that has been lacking for too long. 

I end my comments with a quote; a quote many of you in this room will recognise – I know your Royal Highness, you will recognise it; Secretary General, you will recognise it. In 1994, the words were: “There is only one radical means of sanctifying human lives.  Not armoured plating, not tanks, not planes, or concrete fortifications.  The real radical solution is peace.”  The words of Yitzhak Rabin.

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