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Rome’s Mediterranean Dialogues left many questions unanswered

The 3rd edition of the 2017 Mediterranean Dialogues (MED), organized in Rome annually, was inaugurated with a truly mesmerizing video around the theme “Beyond turmoil, a positive agenda.” The short film opens with beautiful shots of the Mediterranean; powerful music in the background begins to play as we are taken on a photo-journey of the remains of the various — and incredibly rich — civilizations that existed on both sides of the sea.
The video then fast-forward to the present, where we see how this sea — the birthplace of the Pharaohs, Romans and Greeks, among many others — is now the graveyard of thousands of migrants who risk their lives trying to escape terrorism, wars, hunger and unemployment.
However, this was the most drama the attendees of this three-day event ever got. Despite an impressive lineup of high-profile speakers, there was simply not much — or anything new — said.
The disappointments began with Lebanese President Michel Aoun. Given the recent saga over the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Aoun should have easily been the star of the show. However, he delivered a mind-numbing history lesson on the origins of terrorism in the region. Amazingly, Aoun mentioned every terror group except the one that is holding his country hostage: Hezbollah.
Anyone who knows a tiny bit about Lebanese history knows that one simply cannot ignore Hezbollah. While this Iranian-backed militia may have gained praise in the past for resisting the Israeli occupation of Lebanon, it has turned into an occupying force itself since the Israeli withdrawal.
It took over Beirut by force in 2008, and is the prime suspect in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Hezbollah is also involved — against the will of the Lebanese government — in the turmoil in Syria, Yemen and Iraq.

While Hezbollah may have gained praise in the past for resisting the Israeli occupation of Lebanon, it has turned into an occupying force itself since the Israeli withdrawal.

Faisal J. Abbas

Given that Aoun was giving a keynote speech and his session was not moderated, the lack of any follow-up questions may be excused. However, the same does not apply to the rest of the talks.
For example, Iranian Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif’s claim that Tehran does not meddle in the affairs of its neighbors went unchallenged. This was just ridiculous given that in the same session, he said his country is not going to leave Syria, where it has intervened in support of the murderous Assad regime.
During his session, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov painted a romantic view of how Moscow would like to see a peaceful and prosperous Middle East in the future. However, he was not challenged on why, given that his country now calls the shots in Syria, it is still unable to reign in President Bashar Assad and prevent his troops from barrel-bombing or gassing his own people.
Then we had Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammad Al-Thani, who denied accusations that his country supports terror. Why, then, are several Qatari citizens or residents on UN or US terror lists? Sadly, that question was never asked.
One of the few officials to have received a fair share of tough questions was Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir. He was quizzed on everything from Riyadh’s stance on Iran, Qatar and Lebanon, to what would be a reasonable peace plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and how he describes Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Did most other sessions have bad moderators? Or was it the fact that the event was backed by the Italian Foreign Ministry, which means there might have been extra caution in terms of ensuring that panels do not cause a diplomatic crisis for Rome?
Unless the purpose of the meeting was to portray Italy’s ability to be a neutral player and a diplomatic force that welcomes everyone, the type of sophisticated audience attending demands much tougher questions if we are to discuss serious issues that threaten our collective existence today. After all, the event is called Mediterranean Dialogues, not monologues!

Faisal J. Abbas is the editor in chief of Arab News. Twitter: @FaisalJAbbas