Iraq moves closer to Arab Gulf‚ inches away from the ‘Iran axis’
London- Iraqi politicians are branding the recent rapprochement between Iraq and Arab Gulf countries as part of a new policy of “positive neutrality” by Baghdad towards its neighbours. Questions remain, however, about how long the warming of ties will continue.
There have been several significant steps by Riyadh and Baghdad since Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, accompanied by key officials, visited Saudi Arabia in June. Among them was the opening of the Iraqi-Saudi land border for trade for the first time in 27 years. Iraq and Saudi Arabia have also decided to form a joint commission to increase bilateral trade.
Saudi Arabia is looking to invest millions of dollars in Shia-majority areas in Iraq and Kuwait announced it would host a donor conference dedicated to rebuilding Sunni-majority areas destroyed during the military campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS).
There has also been a noticeable increase in visits made by senior Iraqi figures, including the president and the minister of the interior, to Gulf countries as well as visits by Gulf officials to Baghdad. The most noteworthy trips were by influential Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to Saudi Arabia, in July, where he met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz before heading to the United Arab Emirates and a meeting with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al- Nahyan.
The warming of relations has been reflected in media reporting in the Gulf countries and Iraq, although the angle of coverage has varied from one country to another. In the Gulf region, the rapprochement has been touted as a return by Iraq to its natural Arab fold. An emphasis has been put on the need to support a “united” and “independent” Iraq, with “Arab” or “independent” understood to mean an Iraq outside Iranian control.
Inside Iraq, the rapprochement has generally been welcomed but the narrative is that Iraq’s neighbours are the ones to have accepted the reality of post-2003 Baghdad. Some pro-Iran politicians warned against Iraq moving closer to the Gulf than to Tehran. Such a scenario remains unlikely any time soon, though. There have been no serious challenges to the rapprochement moves but that could easily be reversed.
The main thrust behind the push by some Shia politicians in favour of rapprochement is the wish to be — or at least to appear as — independent of Iran’s influence in Iraq.
“We tried being part of the [Iranian] axis and we failed, a devastating failure. It led to having our land being occupied (by ISIS),” Amir al- Kinani, a member of the pro-Sadr al-Ahrar bloc in parliament, told Al Sharqiya TV.
“The policy of positive neutrality has its rewards… Iraq is now getting what it had been asking of its Arab neighbours, so why would we stand against that?” he asked.
Sunni politicians and commentators were also divided over Baghdad’s improvement of ties with Saudi Arabia but for different reasons.
There are Sunni Arabs who fear that an Iraq-Gulf rapprochement that does not entail a change of policies in Baghdad would give the Iraqi government carte blanch to carry on with its alleged marginalisation and persecution of the Sunni Arab community.
For example, the July 18 meeting of Iraqi Interior Minister Qasim al- Araji with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz in Jeddah drew particular criticism on social media since it was perceived as absolving the Iran-backed Iraqi official — who, unlike Sadr, was unambiguously supportive of Tehran — from his alleged crimes against Sunni Arabs.
It could lead to, Sunni Arabs fear, a continuation of what they perceive as sectarian acts by the Iraqi government but with less media attention given to such abuses reported in the Gulf-funded media.
Other Sunni Arabs, however, said they hope that Iraq-Gulf rapprochement would bring about change in the way that their community is treated, as a less sectarian government in Baghdad would undoubtedly mean good news for them.
The perspective in Iraq’s Kurdish-majority semi-autonomous north was also mixed.
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which is led by the Kurdistan Democratic Party, is likely to welcome the weakening of Iran’s grip on Iraq, as Tehran supports the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party.
It remains unlikely, however, that the KRG can garner official Gulf support for its referendum on the independence of Kurdistan, as the Iraqi central government as well as Shia nationalists such as Sadr are strongly opposed to the breakup of the country and Gulf states have expressed their commitment to a “united” Iraq.
As Kurds are predominately Sunni, an Iraq without the Kurdistan region would be a country with a strong Shia majority, making the waning of Iran’s influence a less likely prospect.