With a mix of condemnation, maneuver, and strategic calculation, Gulf countries are navigating the current crisis.
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Among the biggest issues at stake for Iraq, as rival parties maneuver to form a new government after recent parliamentary elections, are the still fledgling ties that Baghdad has been trying to strengthen with Gulf Arab countries on and off for much of the past decade. These efforts are a key part of a broader – and also long-standing – initiative by some Iraqi political actors to reintegrate Iraq into the Arab world, together with the more recent effort to shift to become a broker between Iran and its Arab adversaries rather than a conduit for Tehran’s regional influence. Whoever holds the office of prime minister can either hinder or facilitate efforts to forge a new Iraqi identity – one that avoids domination by either the United States or Iran that would perpetuate Iraq’s predicament as proxy battleground between the two rivals, exacerbating instability.
The October 10 elections were somewhat marred by a smaller than hoped for turnout of 43%. This reflected the low option many Iraqis appear to have of the government and political class, viewed by large numbers of Iraqis as implicated in the corruption prevalent in the country as beholden to special political interests that do not reflect broader Iraqi national interests. On the positive side, despite bitter claims of fraud by the pro-Iranian parties that performed poorly, the vote was widely regarded as fair and free of irregularities. It was the sixth set of Iraqi parliamentary elections – all fundamentally assessed as having been free and fair – since the 2003 U.S. invasion, a noteworthy accomplishment for a state that otherwise lacks many of the elements of an accountable democracy.
Preliminary results indicate that, out of the 329 seats in Parliament, Shia cleric and populist Muqtada al-Sadr won 73 seats. The Shia State of Law Party, led by former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, took a surprisingly impressive 35 seats, while the pro-Iranian Fatah Alliance severely underperformed, winning only 17 seats. In the opposite direction, independent candidates robustly outperformed expectations, capturing 40 seats, and the Imtidad Movement, which represents many of the groups that have been protesting since October 2019 against corruption and Iranian influence in Iraq, similarly did better than expected, winning nine seats. Incumbent Speaker of Parliament Mohammed Halbousi’s Taqadum, or Progress Alliance, received 37 seats, making him not just the indisputable Sunni leader but also ensuring that he will have a considerable say in the formation of the next government. In the semi-autonomous Kurdish north, the Kurdistan Democratic Party got 32 seats, which could position the group to nominate the next Iraqi president. The group’s Kurdish rivals in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan performed less well, winning a mere 16 seats, reinforcing a decadelong slippage in electoral performance.
Unlike in most parliamentary system, the winner of an Iraqi election does not have an automatic right to form the next government. Instead, the biggest alliance of parties that is formed after the voting stops is empowered to try and create a functional majority that can cobble together enough votes to approve a prime minister and Cabinet. Given such realities, it is only after the votes have been counted that that real pollical maneuvering in Iraq, begins, with the largest parties negotiating with smaller ones and jockeying to reach the magic majority vote number of 165. This process usually takes many months and could even go on for a year or more, with the outgoing prime minister continuing as a caretaker.
In a Lebanese-style tacit arrangement, reflecting the group’s demographic predominance and generalized notions on sectarian diversity articulated in the preamble to Iraq’s Constitution, it’s conventional for someone from a Shia community to serve a chief executive in the role of prime minister. Kurds get the largely ceremonial presidency (and use their pivotal influence to help shape the selection of the prime minister). Sunnis are allotted the speakership of the parliament. Given the governance system, the prime minister is best positioned to lead and orient Iraq’s foreign policy, including relations with neighboring countries. During their respective terms as prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari (from 2005-06) and Maliki (from 2006-14) tilted Baghdad toward Iran, while ties with most Arab countries were marred by tensions and often restricted to low-level diplomatic and economic engagement (with Sadr playing the maverick and visiting Saudi Arabia as far back as 2006 and again in 2017). All that changed when Haider al-Abadi replaced Maliki as prime minster in 2014. With the support of the United States, during his 4-year term, Abadi sought to offset Iran’s growing influence in Iraq by forging ties with other states. He visited Riyadh and other Gulf countries in 2017 to improve Iraq’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, which resulted in the appointment of a Saudi ambassador to Iraq and the opening of consulates; it also paved the way for the opening of – and restoration of trade through – the Arar border crossing in November 2020, after it had been closed for nearly 30 years.
These budding ties developed into a practical rapprochement when Mustafa al-Kadhimi became prime minister in the aftermath of the October 2019 protests, which forced the resignation of then-Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi. Since Kadhimi took office, he has tried to balance Iraq’s relations with neighboring countries and turn Iraq into a regional broker rather than a regional battleground. Kadhimi’s personal initiative led to the dramatic opening of direct, and now formal, talks in Iraq between Iran and Saudi Arabia. How far these negotiations can go in restoring relations between the rivals remains to be seen, but they have contributed to the lowering of tensions and an atmosphere of constructive engagement rather than confrontation.
On September 15, a Saudi delegation led by Suhail Abanmi, the acting governor of the Saudi General Customs Authority, visited Baghdad and agreed with his Iraqi counterpart to expand the volume of trader through Arar. Abu Dhabi Ports Group signed a memorandum of understanding with the General Company for Ports in Iraq during the visit of Iraq’s transportation minister to the United Arab Emirates. Additionally, Halbousi visited Abu Dhabi on September 27 with a delegation at the official invitation of the UAE. This is all part of a wider strategy by Kadhimi to improve relations with Gulf Arab countries and advance Iraq’s regional role as a nonaligned peacemaker in the hopes it will help to improve political, economic, and security conditions in Iraq. In the same vein, Kadhimi is working to revive diplomatic and economic ties with Jordan and Egypt. President Barham Salih, too, has leveraged his personal relationships with neighboring leaders to enhance Iraq’s relationships.
Gulf countries have been receptive to Iraq’s outreach. The Gulf Cooperation Council invited Iraq to attend, as an observer, its recent Ministerial Council meeting in Riyadh. At the meeting, Iraq’s foreign Minister, Hussein, emphasized Baghdad’s interest in integrating Iraq’s national power grid with the GCC’s, emblematic of a broader push to improve ties with GCC countries. Also, Iraq has been pushing to open a second border crossing with Saudi Arabia in Iraq’s Muthanna governorate. At the 2021 Riyadh International Book Fair, Iraq was invited as a guest of honor and a special section was dedicated to Iraq. Iraq is planning a weeklong Saudi cultural event in Baghdad in the coming weeks and other cultural ties are developing quickly.
However, maintaining such momentum depends on the outcome of the post-election political process in Iraq. Kadhimi has no popular base or party and has never run for a seat in Parliament. He came to office as a compromise choice, acceptable to most Iraqi groups and, crucially, to both Washington and Tehran. He could again prove to be the most widely acceptable figure and gain a second term, something he was clearly trying to promote in his efforts at regional brokering, especially between Iran and Saudi Arabia, although getting the political stars to align perfectly again during Iraq’s messy government formation negotiations to reproduce that result will not be easy.
The election results were also not good news for the other main proponent of this outreach policy – Salih. As noted, the president’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party fared poorly. In 2018, its Kurdistan Democratic Party rival fielded Iraq’s current foreign minister, Hussein, as its candidate to become president. Hussein, who had proactively pushed for an independent Kurdistan a year prior failed to gain the confidence of Shia parties. The Kurdistan Democratic Party has insisted it should be instrumental in choosing the next president because of its strong showing in the elections. But the outcome will likely be decided by other intra-Kurdish negotiations and those with other Iraqi parties, negotiations characterized by complex internal political dynamics that could easily weaken the focus on the importance of Iraq’s outreach policy as a criterion for selecting the next prime minister, which would also undercut Kadhimi’s prospects.
Most Iraqi Kurds and Sunnis – and the Iraqi political elites who represent them – have enjoyed good relations with the Gulf countries since 2003. But these relationships hae depended on the personalities in power. Some former Iraqi presidents, though Kurdish, did little to advance relations with neighboring countries. However, more recently, Salih and the late former President Jalal Talabani made Gulf outreach a priority. Somewhat surprisingly, the former (Sunni) speakers of parliament – concerned about accusations of being overly concerned with relations with Arab neighbors – were often cautious about mending ties with Gulf countries. However, Halbousi has been more dynamic and worked to advance Iraq’s reintegration with the Arab world, a reflection not only of his political courage but of a changing regional dynamic that is buttressing such efforts.
It remains to be seen if any or all of the current triangle of national power – Kadhimi, Salih, and Halbousi – will be selected for another term. The past three years have shown that Iraq’s regional status can be enhanced through political, trade, and economic relationships with Gulf Arab countries, which are looking to counterbalance Iran’s influence. Alternatively, given his own nationalist orientation, it’s always possible that a Sadr-dominated government could take a roughly similar approach that could cautiously continue reintegration with the Arab world and find a measure of equidistance between Riyadh and Tehran. The stars indeed seem to be aligning for Iraq’s continuing reintegration into the Gulf Arab neighborhood, but which political forces, and prime minister, will be at the helm to guide that process remains dependent on the complex government formation negotiations to come. It is a process ripe for manipulation and political maneuver that could still upset Baghdad’s outreach to its Arab neighbors and is likely to leave many Iraqis disappointed with the results it delivers.
is a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington and the Mustafa Barzani Scholar of Global Kurdish Studies at American University’s School of International Service. He is a TEDx speaker and former lecturer at the University of Kurdistan Hewler. He received his PhD from the Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University.
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