Qatar leverages Gulf reconciliation, Iran ties in a race for influence in Iraq

Doha sees a strategic edge over Arab Gulf competitors because of good relations with Iran
Thursday 25/03/2021
Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani speaks during a joint press conference with his Iraqi counterpart Mohamed Alhahkim in Baghdad, Iraq, March. 24, 2021. (AP)
Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani speaks during a joint press conference with his Iraqi counterpart Mohamed Alhahkim in Baghdad, Iraq, March. 24, 2021. (AP)

BAGHDAD--Qatar has quickly moved to take advantage of the greater diplomatic margin of manoeuvre created by the Al-Ula summit to enter a race with other Gulf nations for closer ties with Iraq driven by different or conflicting intentions and calculations.

The visit of Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Muhammad bin Abdulrahman Al Thani to Baghdad Wednesday and his meeting with the top Iraqi leaders marked a step in towards exploiting the new diplomatic wiggle room enjoyed by Doha, especially because, in contrast to other Arab Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, Qatar’s relationship with Iran makes it immune to the threat of a push-back by Iranian-backed Iraqi political groups.

Saudi Arabia had established contact with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, and sent its foreign minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan to Baghdad last year. But the Saudi move was opposed by hard-line pro-Iranian militias. This complicated the Saudi overtures to Baghdad after thirty years of diplomatic rift following the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait in 1990.

Qatar however sees Iraq as a prime strategic intersection between regional interests, as Iranians, Turks, Americans and a number of Arab countries compete for influence in a nation that has not yet overcome the repercussions of  2003 US invasion.

Although presented as driven by economic objectives, the latest Qatari move has been widely seen as part and parcel of the Gulf race for influence in Iraq amid the new climate created by the fresh strategic approach of the US Biden administration towards the region.

A Saudi source told The Arab Weekly that “Riyadh will not view the Qatari move towards Iraq with great satisfaction.”

“The Qataris are taking advantage of the space they see available. They are also exploiting Iranian silence and Turkish encouragement,” he added, on condition of anonymity. “All these are not comforting factors for Saudi Arabia.”

The Qatari foreign minister agreed with his Iraqi counterpart, Fuad Hussein, to activate a joint committee for economic cooperation between the two countries. He then headed to Kurdistan in northern Iraq to meet Kurdish leaders.

The Arab Gulf overtures towards Iraq have been met by warmly by Iraqi officials. But the Iraqi public is still awaiting  promised tangible benefits from the economic and investment deals by Riyadh and Doha.

Iraqis believe that most of the agreements reached with Saudi Arabia and Qatar are still ink on paper. The general perception is that the failure to implement the various agreements is due to Iranian pressures on the Iraqi government and the opposition of some pro-Iranian political factions to Baghdad’s rapprochement with its Arab Gulf neighbours.

An Iraqi MP attributed the silence of the Iraqi authorities over their reluctance to carry out Saudi and Qatari projects in Iraq to the Iranian attitudes.  These shackle the ability of Iraq to promote its interests with Arab countries, with whom Iran has no inclination to cooperate.

The MP, who declined to be named, doubted that Qatar’s projects in Iraq would meet a better fate than those of Saudi Arabia, even if Doha believes it enjoys a strategic edge over other Arab Gulf countries when it comes to Iran.

He explained that for Tehran “even a partial move of Iraq away from Iranian economic domination could lead to a total detachment from that domination. That kind of shift would seriously damage the Iranian economy, which is still suffering from the impact of US sanctions.”

Even if there is room for optimism that Iran could become more responsive to the demands of the international community, the political prospects in Iraq are blurred by the uncertainties surrounding the forthcoming elections and the political shifts that might result from them.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar have previously announced large economic investments in the Badia of Samawah and the Anbar desert, but no start dates have yet been announced.

“We discussed the resumption of the work of the joint committee for economic cooperation between Qatar and Iraq as soon as possible, and it was agreed to activate the work of the committee,” said the Qatari foreign minister during a press conference held with his Iraqi counterpart Fuad Hussein in Baghdad.

He pointed out that he had held “fruitful” meetings with Iraqi President Barham Salih and had handed him a written message from the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, which included an official invitation to visit Doha. He also met Kadhimi, and said afterwards there had been ” a similarity of views about the regional situation between the two countries.”

Fuad Hussein said during the press conference that his country “will work to activate the Iraqi-Qatari joint committee in charge of economic issues,” adding that “Iraq will implement all agreements between the two countries.”

Iraq and Qatar had agreed in 2013 to form a joint higher committee for political, security, economic, social and cultural coordination. But after ISIS took control of a third of Iraqi territory in 2014, the meetings between the two countries came to a stand still.

Until this week, Sheikh Muhammad’s January 2020 trip to Iraq was the last Qatari ministerial visit. Sheikh Muhammad worked on that occasion to de-escalate tensions in the region, following the US assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani on January 3, 2020, near Baghdad International Airport.

Iraqi President Barham Salih has emphasised that, “The countries of the region bear a great responsibility to overcome the crises and to move beyond the tensions through dialogue, and adopting a political path to resolve the problems of the region,”.

During his meeting with the Qatari foreign minister, President Salih called for efforts to ensure regional stability, confront terrorism and extremist ideologies and boost opportunities for economic and commercial cooperation and development.