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The more we listen to each other, the more we learn

Autumn is usually a busy time for Washington think tanks, and this year is no exception. Several conferences last week focused on US foreign policy in the Middle East. Perhaps the most prominent was the 26th annual Arab-US policymakers’ conference organized by the National Council on US Arab Relations. The two-day event featured current and former officials from the US and just about every country in the Arab world. In addition, several of the event’s panels featured business leaders, economists and energy experts who focused on economic challenges and opportunities in the region as well as the latest developments in international energy markets. 
Critics of such conferences sometimes argue that they mostly provide photo opportunities and a venue in which to network. However, I have yet to attend one at which I did not learn something new, or become aware of a little known historical fact that has helped me better understand where the region is today and where it could be going. 
The keynote address on the first day of the conference was by Gen. Joseph Votel, head of US Central Command. Wearing his full military uniform, and given that he is in charge of arguably the US military’s most challenging area of operations stretching from Morocco to Afghanistan, Gen. Votel is an imposing figure. However, he instantly won over the audience and reminded them that military men are not bereft of a sense of humor when he spoke about the challenge of speaking to an audience that had just enjoyed a delicious lunch that was topped with a chocolate cake that had “at least six layers.”
It is often at events like these that officials’ personalities can shine through. Light-hearted remarks remind audiences that while the subjects being debated are important and serious — often matters of life and death — policymakers are still human. Despite the great responsibility that often falls on their shoulders, officials such as Gen. Votel face challenges, have to make difficult decisions and are often looking for input and feedback from subject matter experts.  Events such as this conference provide a crucial venue for a frank exchange of ideas. 
Gen. Votel spoke about the important and mutually beneficial relations that the US enjoys with nations across the Arab world.  He spoke about how they share similar concerns, including the destructive role of militant organizations and terrorist groups, and the equally troubling role of state sponsors of terrorism. In circumventing the laws, norms and conventions of international relations by interfering in the domestic affairs of other countries, they do the international community a great harm.  Like several other panelists, Gen. Votel singled out Iran as the primary example of such a rogue state.

Think-tank discussion forums are often derided as meaningless talking shops, but events such as the annual Arab-US policymakers’ conference are an opportunity to benefit from a wealth of knowledge and experience.

Fahad Nazer

His remarks were not simply a restatement of US commitments to the security of its allies in the region. He made headlines when he said the US was looking to help countries in the region counter Iran’s nefarious activities and destructive influence through the “establishment of US military battalions sent as missions to the region and designed specifically to provide advice and assistance.”
It was also my distinct honor to have been invited to speak at the conference this year. I was elated to stand in front of hundreds of people representing a wealth of knowledge and experience from the worlds of public policy, economics, business and beyond. To share the stage with giants such as Gen. Votel, the veteran Saudi politician and diplomat Prince Turki Al-Faisal and the founder of the National Council on US Arab Relations, Dr. John Duke Anthony, widely considered the foremost Western expert on the Gulf Cooperation Council, was indeed humbling. While the experience of speaking at such a forum is always rewarding, I am most excited when young Saudis of both sexes introduce themselves to me and tell me about the projects they are working on or their plans for the future.  It is these encounters that make me optimistic about the future of Saudi Arabia. 
In my remarks, I also stressed the importance of adhering to the norms and laws of international relations that have governed the way nations deal with each other for decades, certainly since the end of the Second World War. I argued that respect for the geographic integrity and sovereignty of nations were the pillars on which the international system stood and were the keys to its stability and the prosperity of nations. Those who violate these norms do so at their own peril. They will soon be ostracized by other nations and find themselves in the unenviable position of being an international pariah. The impending defeat of Daesh and the isolation of Iran are a testament to this reality. One hopes that this valuable lesson will not be lost on others.
• Fahad Nazer is an international affairs fellow with the National Council on US-Arab Relations. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, CNN, The Hill and Newsweek, among others. Twitter: @fanazer