Iraq and its Gulf Neighbors: A Troubled History


2012-08-28 by Richard Weitz

Iraq’s relations with other Arab countries are complex and often troubled.

Arabs and others consider Iraq a core Arab state despite its peripheral location on the eastern flank of the Arab world, where it borders two large non-Arab countries, Iran and Turkey. Yet, Iraq’s diverse population has ties to Arab world but also Iran and Turkey.

Decades of war and Saddam’s aggressive stance toward other countries have convinced other Arab leaders to approach even post-Saddam Iraq with prudence. The new Iraqi elites that have risen to power since 2003 have moved the country closer toward Turkey and especially toward Iran, and away from other Arab countries.

The new Iraqi elites that have risen to power since 2003 have moved the country closer toward Turkey and especially toward Iran, and away from other Arab countries. Iraq has departed from the Arab mainstream regarding Syria, and opposed efforts to overthrow the Assad regime there. Other Arab governments want Iraq to be independent of Tehran’s control and having sufficient military power to counterbalance Iran. Credit Image: Bigstock 

Iraq was the first Arab country to experience a modern democratic revolution, though it was imported by force of arms and therefore was more destructive than most of the current upheavals ushered in by the Arab Spring.

Iraq is still a weak state, which encourages and facilitates foreign intervention in its internal affairs.

Iraq is both a competitor of other Arab oil exporters and dependent on their good will. It is almost landlocked, with little Gulf shoreline, so it must export oil through or near neighboring countries.

More recently, Iraq has departed from the Arab mainstream regarding Syria, and opposed efforts to overthrow the Assad regime there.

The six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 because, while they disliked and distrusted Saddam Hussein, they believed the Iraqi dictator was contained by U.S. and Iranian military power from conducting any near-term aggression. Conversely, they worried that his removal would create a power vacuum that could see Iranian and Shiite influence grow in Iraq, as indeed did occur.

Nonetheless, criticism of the March 2003 invasion became muted once the war looked inevitable.

After the fighting started, GCC members assisted U.S. and coalition partners’ military operations in Iraq in various ways, including by providing overflight and basing rights.

At the same time, the GCC states also sought to separate themselves from the violence and terrorism that engulfed Iraq soon after the U.S. occupation began. The GCC fears reflect their common borders with Iraq (with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait), which facilitates the creation of cross-border networks of terrorists and criminals. For example, the government of Kuwait discovered plots to attack U.S. troops and camps as well as shopping malls and residential areas in 2005.

Conversely, many of the foreign fighters who joined the anti-American insurgency in Iraq came from the Gulf countries, where al-Qaeda and other extremist groups found ready recruits to fight “the crusaders” or Iraqi Shiites since public opinion in the GCC states generally remained hostile to the Western invasion and subsequent occupation.

Their strategy of isolating Iraq and eschewing ties with the Baghdad government may have limited the contagious effects of the Iraq disorders on the GCC countries, but it also deprived them of much influence on developments inside Iraq and amplified Iranian influence in the country.

The Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, known colloquially as the Gulf Cooperation Council, was founded on May 25, 1981. It consists of six predominantly Sunni Muslim Arab members, all located on the Arabian Peninsula and adjacent to the Persian Gulf: the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the Sultanate of Oman, the State of Kuwait, the State of Qatar and the Kingdom of Bahrain.

The stated objectives of the GCC are to “effect coordination, integration and inter-connection between Member States in all fields,” to strengthen “ties between their peoples, formulating similar regulations in… economy, finance, trade, customs, tourism, legislation, administration” and to foster progress in the scientific and technical fields.

The impetus for establishing the GCC was the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the ensuing 1980-88 war between Iran and Iraq. These developments exacerbated the Sunni-Shiite divide in Islam and the clash of Arab and Persian nationalism. These factors have also shaped how the GCC has approached Iraq.

Although Iran is not mentioned by name in the GCC founding documents, and their militaries did not participate directly in the war against Iran, the Gulf states provided significant funding for the Iraqi war effort, with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait each contributing billions of dollars in loans and grants.

This policy was pursued in the support of Sunni-Arab solidarity against a Shiite regime and for the realpolitik considerations of countering the Iranian territorial and revolutionary threats against GCC territory and regimes.

In the west, Iran is separated from Kuwait by the slender Al-Faw Peninsula and Shatt-al-Arab Waterway, while in the east, the territory of Oman lies just across the Straits of Tiran. Iran claims several islands that belong to the UAE, while Iranian revolutionaries have supported anti-regime agitation in several Gulf states.

Despite its origins, the GCC has never had sufficient military means to balance Iran. The GCC has officially striven to achieve a capacity for collective military defense and deterrence since its founding. Many of these efforts have focused on building a collective Peninsula Shield Force, with more ambitious initiatives never panning out.

Although they have an abundance of money, a shortage of manpower has meant that the GCC has failed to produce a credible military force.

Their populations are relatively small, falling between 1 million and 5 million residents, with the exception of Saudi Arabia’s 30 million people. Furthermore, young male citizens tend to pursue lucrative private sector employment opportunities rather than military service.

Another hindrance on their collective strength is the competitive dynamics among the six states. The five smaller countries desire the protection of Saudi Arabia’s more powerful military but fear being overshadowed and overpowered by their larger neighbor.

Insufficient military interoperability among GCC armies also remains a problem though matters are improving, partly due to recent U.S. initiatives to coordinate its assistance to the GCC militaries. The GCC members have therefore relied on powerful extra-regional balancers, most recently the United States, to bolster their defenses.

These various differences contribute to slightly diverging foreign-policy orientations among the GCC countries.

The UAE and Oman are the GCC countries most favorably disposed toward improving relations with Iraq. They are eager to enhance economic ties and do not perceive a direct threat from a Shiite-led regime in Baghdad that has good relations with Tehran. Oman also has fairly good relations with Iran, whereas Tehran and the UAE have a major territorial dispute involving three Persian Gulf islands located between them. However, relations between Iraq and the rest of the GCC countries have been mired in tension.

In the decade after the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war, all GCC members resolved to strengthen and modernize their armed forces, but their limited reaction to the August 2, 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait exposed the underlying weakness of the alliance. Despite this direct attack on a member state, the GCC was unable to back up its condemnation of Iraq’s actions with any credible opposition to Iraq’s much stronger army.

At the conclusion of the war on March 3, 1991, the six members of the GCC along with Syria and Egypt met in Damascus to agree on the establishment of a permanent security force to protect Kuwait and the other members against future aggression. Syria and Egypt were to contribute troop contingents on a reimbursable basis. What became known as the “Damascus Declaration” soon unraveled when differences emerged over the desirability of long-term Egyptian and Syrian presence in the Gulf.

Only a few months later, in September 1991, Kuwait and the United States signed a formal ten-year defense agreement. Renewed in 2001, it permits the U.S. to pre-position weapons and conduct military exercises in Kuwait. In 1992, the UAE, Bahrain, and Qatar also signed bilateral defense agreements with the United States.

While the ideological orientation of the Gulf monarchies should favor security cooperation with fellow Muslim and Arab states, the realities of power politics in a dangerous region dictate their need to rely on the United States for their ultimate security.

It has only been in recent years that Iraq’s ties with the GCC have improved.

For example, in December 2010 the UN Security Council voted to repeal UNSC Resolution 661 (1990), which imposed a number of sanctions on Saddam Hussein’s regime after it invaded Kuwait. For two decades, these sanctions had inflicted considerable hardship on many Iraqis and they remained a major barrier to better Iraq-GCC ties.

Furthermore, the Iraqi government and constitution formally renounced the development, production, transfer, or use of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. To this end, Iraq acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2009 and signed the International Atomic Energy Agency Additional Protocol in 2008.

Notwithstanding these developments, the GCC has remained cautious in its relations with Iraq due to its government’s perceived close ties with Iran. And since then the Syrian crisis has created another serious impediment to Iraq-GCC reconciliation.

The Baghdad government has resisted GCC efforts to break relations with the Syrian government or call for the resignation of President Assad. For example, Iraq abstained from the voting to suspend Syria from the Arab League in November 2011.

Iraqi officials have also opposed international efforts to sanction or pressure the Damascus government, and adamantly resisted GCC efforts to train and arm a Sunni-led insurgency against Assad.