2012-08-14 By Richard Weitz
Iraq-GCC relations have perhaps now reached one of their most critical stages.
This turning point has been reached due to several concurrent developments.
- Iraq’s precarious internal and external conditions after the U.S. military withdrawal,
- the enduring and widespread impact of the Arab Spring,
- and the profound geopolitical changes that are taking place in the Gulf region in which the interests and influence of the regional and great powers (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey along with Russia and the United States) clash.
Of these, the confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran (with Turkey becoming a growing presence) has become especially acute, with Iraq situated uneasily in the middle.
The discussions within the Saudi-led GCC of accepting Jordan and Morocco as members (though neither is a Gulf state) underscores how the GCC is seeking to establish a Sunni-led camp backed by the United States against a perceived Iranian-led Shiite crescent.
The latter bloc is trying to exploit the Arab Spring, which has weakened the power of Egypt, whose pre-revolutionary government had been one of the strongest advocates of reintegrating Iraq into the Arab fold, and other potential members of an anti-Iranian coalition as well as exposed new vulnerabilities in their authoritarian political systems.
Both blocs have been simultaneously seeking to project their influence in Iraq and other contested states (e.g., Syria), keep the Baghdad government weak, but all the while avert the collapse of Iraq into a failed or divided country that would export chaos throughout its neighborhood.
The Arab League summit in late March 2012 highlighted how far Iraq has come, but also, and more importantly, how far it has yet to go to in returning to the Arab mainstream, particularly with respect to the GCC.
This was the first Arab League summit that Baghdad had hosted since 1990. The Arab League had planned to hold a summit in Baghdad in 2011, but Iraqi-GCC differences over Bahrain and the chaos of the Arab Spring delayed the conclave by one year. As the host country, Iraq also gets to hold the one-year rotating presidency of the Arab League.
In addition to signifying Iraq’s return to the ranks of one of the leading Arab countries, one reason why Iraq wanted to host a summit in Baghdad was to showcase the country’s improved security and stability to the 22-member League. Iraqi officials did succeed in this regard, overcoming the doubts of a pre-summit investigatory team sent to survey the safety and security measures in Baghdad. Iraq spent almost one billion dollars to host the summit, with considerable funds expended to mobilize a massive security effort.
The summit also helped showcase the diverse ethnic composition of Iraq’s government. President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd who speaks fluent Arabic and has sought to mediate between Iraq’s competing power centers, became the first non-Arab to chair an Arab League summit. Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, another Iraqi Kurd, chaired the foreign ministers’ meeting.
Several other promising developments that occurred immediately before the summit raised hopes for a breakthrough in Iraq-GCC ties. Less than two weeks prior to the meeting, Saudi Arabia and Iraq agreed to exchange prisoners, who would serve their sentences in their native countries. More than 110 Saudis and 140 Iraqis were exchanged.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia and Oman both named non-resident ambassadors to Baghdad—the first time Saudi Arabia had an ambassador for Iraq since 1990. Saudi Arabia also invited a delegation of Iraqi security officials to Riyadh for consultations.
But fewer than half of the leaders of the Arab League member governments ultimately attended the Baghdad summit.
The only GCC leader present was the emir of Kuwait, Sheik Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah. Most League members either boycotted the summit or sent low-level representation.
Regional experts viewed the disappointing turnout of Gulf leaders as a “diplomatic snub” of Iraq.
Still, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told the media at the end of the meeting that, “We are very comfortable with the level of representation considering the present conditions (in Iraq). The most important thing is that all Arab states participated. It was a historic summit.”
Although the security risks may have played a role, the poor turnout was also a response to Iraq’s opposition to GCC intervention in Syria as well as to GCC assistance to the beleaguered Sunni government of Bahrain, which faces unprecedented mass demonstrations by the island’s Shiites against the ruling Sunni monarchy. GCC leaders may have interpreted Iraq’s position as de facto support for Shiite nationalists as well as for Tehran’s position on these issues.
Sectarian opposition to the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad also played a part. The prime minister of Qatar said the low-level GCC representation was a means of protesting what he termed the Iraq government’s marginalization of the country’s Sunni minority.
Any boost to better ties from the summit was immediately dissipated by the conflict that arose between Maliki and some GCC members shortly after the meeting. Malki reacted sharply to the news that fugitive vice president Tareq al-Hashemi, whom Maliki had tried to arrest, had made an “official’ visit to Qatar at the invitation of its government. Alluding to the flow of weapons to Iraqi terrorists, Maliki attacked those governments that were seeking to arm the Syrian rebels and overthrow Assad, arguing that “those countries that are interfering in Syria’s internal affairs will interfere in the internal affairs of any country.”
The Saudi media responded with a wave of invective against Maliki. Tariq al-Homayed, the editor of Asharq al-Awsat, called on the GCC members to “boycott Maliki and his government,” while The Al-Riyadh termed a “Maliki a voice for Iran.”
One issue that has limited GCC-Iraq tensions is that the Gulf states have opposed efforts to partition Iraq since that would create three or more weak states unable to resist Iranian influence and most likely in frequent conflict with one another, which would offer temptations for other foreign intervention. The probable creation of a separate Shiite state in the south would prove especially unwelcome.
For Iraq’s relations with the GCC to move forward, both sides must address the sectarian and geopolitical differences dividing the parties as well as much of the Middle East.
From Iran to Bahrain to Syria, these have amplified Iraq-GCC tensions and overshadowed their common economic and security interests.
The economic potential of Iraq’s re-emergence is something the GCC has recognized and attempted to co-opt. but the strong ties between Baghdad and Tehran will constrain Iraq’s acceptance by the GCC.
The GCC’s posture toward Iran is clear. How Iraq can balance its internal security, improving relations with Iran, stances on unrest in Syria and Bahrain, and relations with the GCC is not.