As part of its Gulf Rising series, AGSIW hosted a discussion on the state of relations between the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and Iraq. How do Gulf countries view Iraq’s evolving regional role? What role might they play in reshaping Iraq’s domestic landscape, particularly the crucial struggle against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, and bolstering its political stability? Besides counterterrorism and trade, what other opportunities for cooperation and strengthened ties can be explored? Can Iraq reassure GCC states regarding its relationship with Iran, or even use them as a counterweight to Iranian pressure? Could Baghdad help mediate between Tehran and its GCC rivals? What is the Gulf interest in the Kurdish question, and its impact on other regional concerns, including Syria? How does U.S. policy factor into these and other questions?
Dlawer Ala’Aldeen, Founding President, Middle East Research Institute
Luay al-Khatteeb, Executive Director, Iraq Energy Institute
Denise Natali, Distinguished Research Fellow, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University
Mohammed Alyahya, Nonresident Fellow, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, Atlantic Council
Toby Dodge, Director, London School of Economics Middle East Centre
Hussein Ibish, Senior Resident Scholar, AGSIW (Moderator)
Luay Al-Khatteeb began the discussion by stating that Iraq has been subject to three different strategies from the United States since 2003 with each U.S. administration, leading to unpredictability in Iraq. As a result, GCC engagement in Iraq is not as strong as desired. Al-Khateeb stressed that the Gulf desires a unified Iraq, especially as a force against Iran. There are great opportunities for GCC investment in Iraq as cities are being liberated from ISIL, with ease in investment facilitated by a shared social and tribal heritage. Lastly, Al-Khateeb underscored that the GCC must re-engage, with serious intentions, with the center of Shia Islam, the city of Najaf in Iraq.
Denise Natali further assessed U.S. engagement in Iraq, stressing the Trump administration’s failure to properly communicate the future shape of the United States’ role in Iraq. Natali expressed that there would continue to be pressure to go after Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps backed militias undermining Iraqi sovereignty, but questioned U.S. leverage in the region, following eight years of selective engagement under the Obama administration. She stated that regardless of the uncertainty of the shape of U.S. engagement in Iraq under the Trump administration, the United States will continue to emphasize counterterrorism, namely fighting ISIL. Because the United States prioritizes counterterrorism, she did not expect a fundamental shift in the balance of power on the ground in Iraq. In addition to counterterrorism, Natali underscored that regional governments such as Turkey are likely to establish deals with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which would affect the outcome of the conflict in Syria. Natali also suggested that the most important issue in Iraq is border security, which might require an outside force, such as the United States, for implementation.
Dlawer Ala’aldeen continued the discussion by focusing on future relations between the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil and Baghdad. Despite past attempts to establish relations, the two entities have grown far apart and repairing the relationship is unlikely. Ala’Aldeen highlighted the continued Kurdish desire for independence, a desire which has reached levels beyond Erbil. Previously, debates regarding Kurdish independence were internal to Kurdistan, but have now escalated to Baghdad and other Middle Eastern countries. Saudi Arabia especially desires a united Iraq, as this would allow Kurds to maintain a Sunni influence in Baghdad. Ala’Aldeen also noted that Kurds tend to view the United States more favorably than the rest of Iraq, thus aligning Kurdish and Gulf interests. Moreover, Saudi Arabia has lost much of its foothold in Baghdad, and is now focusing on economic and political investment in Kurdistan to strengthen its influence in Iraq outside of Baghdad. Ala’Aldeen also stressed that current Gulf relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government should serve as a predictor of future GCC engagement in the region.
Mohammed Alyahya further noted the uncertainty of the Trump administration’s engagement in Iraq, stating that Cabinet positions would be the best indicator of any policy. Alyahya predicted that Iran is likely to test the Trump administration within its first six months through a possible military scrimmage or kidnapping, thus enabling the Iranian government to assess Trump’s position toward Iran. Alyahya explained that Gulf countries desire more bilateral relations and communication with Iraq, noting the recent reopening of embassies. However, security remains a concern for GCC states; Bahrain and Saudi Arabia fear Bahraini insurgents are being trained by Iran in Iraq. Lastly, Alyahya said that initial investment for infrastructure is likely to come from the Gulf countries, thus establishing the GCC’s role in a post-Mosul Iraq.
Toby Dodge began by highlighting that, unlike the United States, Iran always appeared to have a clear plan for an Iraqi government post-conflict. If the United States wishes to influence Iraq without risking political confrontation with Iran, there must be sustained engagement with key political figures to help the government gain control. Ultimately, the United States must desire to help Iraq, not present a list of demands. Dodge repeated that Iraq has felt left out since 2011 under the Obama administration’s strategy of selective engagement and hopes that the new administration will be more involved. Regarding Iraqi relations with Kuwait, Dodge stated that the relationship is still filled with trauma due to the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait but that the current Iraqi government must not be held responsible. Dodge closed the discussion by highlighting the importance of Iraq developing true political participation and representation for its citizens.
Through its careful examination of the forces shaping the evolution of Gulf societies and the new generation of emerging leaders, AGSIW facilitates a richer understanding of the role the countries in this key geostrategic region can be expected to play in the 21st century.Learn More