Iraq moves closer to Arab Gulf‚ inches away from the ‘Iran axis’

Sunday 27/08/2017
Opening doors. Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (R) and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in Jeddah, last June. (Saudi Royal Court)

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.