Middle East leaders paint ‘dark picture’ at Rome conference

ROME (Reuters) – When Italy organized a conference focused on the Middle East, the Gulf and North Africa, it promised to look beyond the turmoil roiling the region and instead promote a “positive agenda”.

FILE PHOTO: Qatar’s foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani attends the 36th Session of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland September 11, 2017. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

But many of the 45 heads of state, ministers and business leaders who attended the event over the past three days saw little future cheer.

Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, captured the gloom, bemoaning “a lack of wisdom” in the region, with “no hope” on hand for ordinary people hoping for an end to years of conflict, upheaval and sectarianism.

“Maybe I have presented a dark picture, but it is not as dark as I have explained, it is darker,” said Thani, whose country is suffering an economic blockade by its Arab neighbors, which accuse Qatar of supporting terrorism.

Qatar denies the accusations and the crisis has pushed the tiny, gas-rich state closer to Shi‘ite Muslim Iran, the regional rival to Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia.

The foreign ministers of both Iran and Saudi Arabia addressed the conference, taking turns to trade barbs.

“Since 1979, the Iranians have literally got away with murder in our region, and this has to stop,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said on Friday, accusing Tehran of interfering in the affairs of numerous Arab states, including Syria, Yemen and Lebanon.

A day earlier, on the same stage, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif accused Saudi Arabia of blocking ceasefire efforts in Syria, “suffocating” Qatar, destabilizing Lebanon and supporting Islamic State.

He also dismissed suggestions that Tehran was meddling in the affairs of its troubled neighbors or that it should stop supporting militia groups, like Hezbollah in Lebanon.

DESTRUCTION

Casting around for reasons to be positive, most speakers pointed to the defeat of Islamic State, which used to rule over millions of people in Iraq and Syria, but now controls just small pockets of land after months of fierce military assaults.

However, officials warned the group would not die easily.

“It has been defeated as a military force on the ground, but it is likely to go back to cities to create destruction and terror,” said Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit, predicting the…

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