With a mix of condemnation, maneuver, and strategic calculation, Gulf countries are navigating the current crisis.
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Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s August visit to Washington generated a lot of media buzz. Expectations rose regarding the realignment of Iraq with the Gulf Arab countries through investment and plugging Iraq’s national electric grid into the Gulf Cooperation Council’s as a pathway to reduce Baghdad’s reliance on Iran’s electricity.
The strategy of the administration of President Donald J. Trump to tilt Iraq toward the Gulf countries is an extension of the diplomacy of President Barack Obama that started in 2013 under the watch of Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant Brett McGurk as a counter to Iran’s influence in Iraq. However, the Trump administration has been more forceful in its attempts to reintegrate Iraq into the Arab world. And the “maximum pressure” approach to contain Iran’s destabilizing behavior in the Middle East has played a key role in the administration’s determination to help Iraq and Saudi Arabia mend ties.
The United States encountered a similar dilemma as President Dwight D. Eisenhower tried to contain Egypt in 1956. His strategy was to forge an alliance among Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Lebanon as a counterbalance to the rise of President Gamal Abdul Nasser and his ties to the Soviet Union. In this context, Saudi King Saud bin Abdulaziz met Iraqi King Faisal in Baghdad laying down a foundation of trust between the two rivals after Faisal relinquished his family’s claim over Hijaz, helping to resolve long-standing issues of border demarcations between Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
Washington encouraged reconciliation between the two neighboring countries via financial and military support. It offered some $50 million to the Saudi king and provided Iraq with military aid. However, the alliance never materialized due to domestic developments, mutual distrust, and dramatic geopolitical events such as the formation of United Arab Republic between Egypt and Syria and the political crisis in Lebanon in 1958 that sparked a U.S. military intervention. Furthermore, the 1958 coup that ended the Hashemite dynasty in Iraq widened the trust deficit between Baghdad and Riyadh. Tensions increased as Iraq threatened to invade Kuwait and, in 1961, Saudi Arabia sent a contingency force to defend the small Gulf country.
The regional dynamic changed with the Iranian Revolution in 1979. The threat posed by a non-Arab power drew Saudi Arabia and Iraq together, yet Riyadh purposefully “institutionalized a distance” between the Gulf Arab countries and Iraq by excluding Baghdad from membership in the GCC in 1981. Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait 10 years later only reinforced Saudi Arabia’s concerns about Baghdad’s regional ambitions.
In post-2003 Iraq, the resignation of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and his replacement by Haider al-Abadi in 2014 paved the way for the establishment of diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Washington heavily depended on the personality of Abadi to advance its new approach regarding Iraq and he visited Riyadh twice. Iraqi President Fuad Masum also visited Riyadh, and these talks with Saudi officials led to the appointment in June 2015 of Thamer al-Sabhan as Saudi Arabia’s first resident ambassador to Iraq since 1991. A few months later, Iraq sent its own ambassador to Riyadh. However, there was a fundamental weakness in Washington’s strategy. It centered on Abadi alone, and the United States promoted him at the expense of other key allies in Iraq, including Kurds, especially in 2017 when the Kurdistan region held its ill-fated independence referendum.
The Trump administration tasked then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to sell the importance of a deeper relationship between Baghdad and Riyadh. He joined Abadi at the inaugural meeting of the Saudi-Iraqi Coordination Committee, along with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz, highlighting the significance of the Saudi-Iraqi relationship to collective security and prosperity in the region.
But Abadi’s defeat in Iraq’s 2018 parliamentary elections halted progress between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. In August, an Iraqi delegation visited the United States, including representatives from the Kurdistan region. In recent decades, Gulf-Kurdish relations have been stronger than relations with Baghdad, so bringing in the Kurdish perspective has helped to capitalize on existing diplomatic and economic ties.
The exchange of visits by Iraqi and Saudi officials led to the formation of the Saudi-Iraqi Coordination Council in October 2017 to coordinate and facilitate trade, investment, and the opening of the Arar border crossing. But the council has been largely ineffective. Despite agreeing to open the Arar border crossing, it has remained closed except during hajj, even though it was renovated on the Saudi side. Moreover, it took almost two years for Saudi Arabia to schedule the second meeting of the council.
While these initiatives have improved formal Saudi-Iraqi ties, they have transformed little on the ground, for example, Saudi investment in Iraq. This is largely due to the mismatch between those who hold power at the official level in Baghdad and those who hold power on the ground throughout Iraq. The former appear serious about rebuilding Iraq’s relations with the Gulf countries. But the latter, composed of Shia militia groups, view Saudi Arabia as a threat to their power. Without fundamental change to the Iraqi political landscape, this internal schism will continue to hinder meaningful rapprochement between Baghdad and Riyadh.
In fact, a number of initiatives have been proposed by the Saudis to strengthen the Iraqi state. However, Saudi Arabia doesn’t have effective pathways yet to channel economic incentives to the right hands in Baghdad. A $1 billion dollar pledge for development loans to Iraq has been stalled since 2017 as has a plan to build a sports city as a gift to Baghdad. Additionally, there has been a lack of progress to open consulates in Najaf and Basra.
Political upheavals could be partially responsible for the lack of progress, but more significant factors for the Saudis are likely insecurity in the Shia heartland and stonewalling by anti-Saudi elements in the Iraqi government. Saudi Arabia is more likely to provide financial aid if it has the proper channels to deliver funding, and if there is accountability. Iraq is already plagued by conflict, corruption, and instability, and increased inflows of funds risk deepening political friction among various factions vying for power.
Iraq remains a hostile ground for Saudi investment and other interests. The presence of Popular Mobilization Forces continues to pose a serious threat. Some PMF factions have threatened Saudi Arabia, pledging to attack the kingdom following the defeat of ISIL in Iraq and Syria, and the PMF factions that are known as the Islamic Resistance have a presence on the Iraqi-Saudi border.
The military influence of these factions in Sunni-dominated areas continues to pose serious threats even for the delivery of international aid to war-stricken areas. For example, the Guardian of Blood, an armed group that is part of the Islamic Resistance, claimed responsibility for an attack on a U.N. World Food Program convoy, which it claimed was concealing CIA personnel, as it was trying to deliver aid to Nineveh province. Militia groups harass the U.S. military and make logistics and movements difficult. Furthermore, the recent killing of Iraqi activists in Baghdad, Basra, and other areas with impunity, especially while Kadhimi was in Washington, is a clear message from these militia groups about the control and power they wield in Iraq.
However, a proposal to connect Iraq’s power grid to the GCC network, if successful, might enable Gulf states to project influence in Iraq and, to some extent, incrementally roll back the influence of armed Shia groups. Iraq signed a deal with the GCC in 2019 to import some 500 megawatts of electricity to Basra by 2020. According to the Iraqi government, Baghdad has taken care of 80% of what needs to be done to fulfil its part of the agreement, shifting attention to the Gulf states’ willingness to do their part to link Iraq to the GCC grid.
If the GCC expedites completing the transmission infrastructure to provide needed electricity to Iraq, this would pay large dividends. It would go directly to the Iraqi people, who have been suffering from scorching heat due to power disruptions and lack of drinking water. If power is delivered to homes, it will be hard for the anti-Saudi factions in Iraq to disrupt it without inviting the ire of the population. Therefore, the Iraqi federal police would need to provide full protection to this vital infrastructure and the United States, as a staunch backer of the project, could use drones for surveillance, if necessary.
Shia militias continue to control the important security organs of the Iraqi state. Kadhimi has a weak mandate since he was appointed by political parties that have a stake in maintaining the current power dynamics. While he has notable popular support, he still might be challenged in parliamentary elections slated for June 2021. However, if his list is able to win enough seats, that could give him the mandate he needs to deal with security challenges and eventually create a more conducive environment for Saudi soft power in Iraq. But draconian measures to deal with pro-Iranian Shia factions could also backfire and plunge the country into civil war. History has shown that Iraq does not respond well to external pressure, which instead exacerbates the ethno-sectarian fault lines the country was built upon. Connecting Iraq’s national power grid into the GCC network would be a start. But eventually, domestic solutions will be necessary for economic development and national stability.
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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