Mixed messages at Iraq international donor conference in Kuwait, misgivings endure

There are fears that some Gulf countries might not fulfil pledges if they see increased Iranian influence in Iraq.
Sunday 18/02/2018
A Kuwaiti journalist speaks on his phone in front of the logo of the Iraq reconstruction conference in Kuwait City, on  February 11. (AFP)
Lingering doubts. A Kuwaiti journalist in front of the logo of the Iraq reconstruction conference in Kuwait City, on February 11. (AFP)

Mohammed Alkhereiji and Mamoon Alabbasi 

LONDON - Global donors pledged $30 billion for rebuilding Iraq during a conference hosted by Kuwait’s Chamber of Commerce. The promised funds, however, were significantly short of the Iraqi government’s target of $88 billion.

The International Conference for the Reconstruction of Iraq brought together 74 countries and international organisations to generate funds to rebuild areas devastated in the 3-year war against the Islamic State (ISIS).

Gulf Arab countries contributed significant sums. Saudi Arabia allocated $1 billion in loans and $500 million to fund Saudi exports to Iraq and finance projects there, state-run Al Iraqiya News reported.

The United Arab Emirates pledged $500 million and UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said Iraq can expect a further $5.5 billion in private UAE investments. Kuwait promised $1 billion in loans and $1 billion in direct investments. Qatar pledged $1 billion.

“This large assembly of international communities that are here today is reflective of the large loss that Iraq withstood in facing terrorism,” Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah said at the conference. “Iraq cannot commence the mission of rebuilding itself without support, which is why we are all here today from all around the world, to stand by Iraq’s side.”

There is apparently still bad blood towards Iraq, which invaded Kuwait in 1990, among the Kuwaiti populace. Members of the Kuwaiti opposition in parliament blamed the Iraqi government for the country’s economic problems.

“The successive governments of Iraq have proven their failure at reconstruction and achieving prosperity for their people; why are they being handed $100 billion?” wrote MP Safaa al-Hashem on her Twitter account, proposing that Kuwaiti investors help rebuild Iraq.

The event led to the hashtag “Iraq Reconstruction Conference” trending in Kuwait, with many expressing displeasure over  the conference taking place in the country.

“An apology to my martyred aunt, an apology to my martyred cousin Fahd, an apology to my martyred grandmother Ghaneema, an apology to every martyr of the Iraqi invasion… we can only say God help us over this government,” tweeted @Omfedhha.

Other users blasted the government for its donations at a time of economic difficulties. Twitter user @KHalkhamis said: “Our unwise government, you lift subsidies and impose fines and taxes… only to donate our money to those who do not deserve it.”

Despite lingering doubts, attempts by Gulf Cooperation Council members to bridge the gap with Baghdad have been ongoing for several years, particularly with regards to Saudi Arabia.

Efforts by Riyadh to re-engage Iraq started when Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir made a surprise visit in February 2017 to Baghdad, the first by a high-ranking Saudi official since 2003. Last June, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi met with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in Jeddah.

This was followed by the development of a coordination council to strengthen strategic, economic and security ties between the two countries.

Turkey said it would provide Iraq $5 billion in loans and investment. The United Kingdom said it would give the Iraqi government export credit of up to $1 billion per year for a decade. Germany pledged approximately $617 million and the European Union nearly $500 million.

Iranian representatives attended the conference but made no pledge other than to say it would support Iraq through the private sector. Similarly, the United States stressed its previous aid to Iraq but added that its future support would not be in more donations but rather in encouraging the private sector.

“The private sector will be critical and promoting US business interests in Iraq is a top priority for the Trump administration,” Brett McGurk, special US presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, said at the conference.

“Iraq’s long-term reconstruction… will not come from the largess of donations — as its own development plans make clear — but rather through reforms, public and private investment, economic growth and smart financing,” said McGurk.

Despite the upbeat tone of many participants, observers noted mixed messages from the conference, especially when pledges totalled much less than what Iraq needed.

“Iraq needs billions of dollars to rebuild after the military defeat of the Islamic State but the nations expected to step up and shoulder the financial burden of reconstruction have sent a mixed message of support, leaving the final outcome in doubt,” wrote Rhys Dubin in Foreign Policy.

There are fears that some Gulf countries might not fulfil their pledges should they see an increased Iranian influence in Iraq.

“According to several Western diplomats, Saudi Arabia in particular was spooked by a short-lived electoral alliance between Abadi and the Iran-aligned head of the Badr Organisation, Hadi al-Amiri,” wrote Dubin.

“Though the joint coalition dissolved only days after it was formed, some government officials in the United States and Saudi Arabia saw it as further evidence for Iran’s creeping influence in the country.”