Baghdad is Back:

Openness to Iraq on the part of several major Arab powers in the Middle East, such as Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, significantly increased in the last third of last year and the first third of 2021. This has been reflected in summits held between political leaders and the organization of mutual visits to strengthen security relationships, economic interests, and energy sector understandings. There is parallel interest from international powers—especially the United States, Russia, France, and Germany—in what is taking place in Iraq, both in its domestic affairs and foreign relations. This situation raises the question of why Iraq’s importance is increasing at this time vis-à-vis the foreign policies of regional and international powers.

In this context, there are three considerations governing Arab openness to Iraq. The first consideration concerns the Arab states themselves, which are trying to correct the strategic imbalance following the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq and the American occupation. At that time, Iran filled the vacuum resulting from the absence of the Arab states from the interactions taking place in the Iraqi area. This helped Tehran expand over the past two decades to the extent that it is no longer competing with other regional powers. Thus, the major Arab powers seek to balance Tehran’s influence and lessen dependence on the latter through promoting common interests, as Iraq is considered Iran’s "economic lung."

Moreover, there is the importance of pumping Arab investments into the Iraqi economy after it has been devastated, particularly in areas that were subjected to ISIS’s three-year struggle to establish a caliphate. This takes on special significance in light of its growing influence in the neighboring Arab country of Syria. This requires accelerating Arab support for Iraq’s reconstruction projects through contracting companies with expertise in this field, leading to the return of displaced persons to their areas of residence and assistance in chasing down the remnants of ISIS, which seeks to resume its terrorist operations after the fracturing of its "territorial sovereignty."

In this context, Iraq is considered a repository of intelligence secrets for the region’s security services, especially since ISIS fighters are of Arab and Western nationalities and have relationships with elements within each country, its neighbor, or the neighbor’s neighbor due to a dynamic geography. Accordingly, open channels of communication between security services and their Iraqi counterparts enhance the capabilities of Arab countries to combat transnational terrorist organizations, the most dangerous of which is ISIS. Perhaps Cairo’s launch of the Arab Intelligence Forum fits into this context.

Meanwhile, the second consideration is Iraq itself, whose ruling elite changed to some degree after the departure of the government of Nouri al-Maliki in 2014, and the advent of governments more open to the Arab states and aware of the importance of the Arabness of Iraq. This emerged after Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, who became prime minister in May 2020, began looking to rebalance Iraq’s foreign relations, especially with the Arab world. The Iraqi government also needs Arab aid and investments to stabilize the country, and it is entering into new arrangements with Arab states, such as the "New Levant (Mashreq)" project that includes Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt, and aims to increase economic cooperation, especially in energy and electricity.

The third consideration concerns regional contexts dominated by crises and complexity. These require joint cooperation and coordination in facing pressing challenges, including political, security, economic, and health challenges. This may explain why some Arab states, such as the UAE and Egypt, sent medical aid to Iraq as a way of ramping up the so-called "health diplomacy" resulting from the COVID-19 crisis. In addition, Arab-Iraqi cooperation helps limit the interference of regional powers, particularly Turkey’s influence in northern Iraq, and strengthens Arab relations with Iraq. This will help extricate Iraq from the tense situation between Washington and Tehran in the region, and keep it from being an arena for confrontation.

In sum, there is an Arab interest in Iraq’s recovery from the domestic and foreign crises it has faced over the last period. Just as Iraq was a threat to the Arab states during the rule of Saddam Hussein, it became an even greater threat to national security and Arab national security in various ways following the American occupation of Iraq. The Arab states recognized the need to integrate Iraq into the Arab order, promote measures of its stability, and open it up to its neighboring states, according to shared benefits consisting primarily of warding off security threats and strengthening economic networks, especially diversifying its oil export methods, in order to avoid the threats posed by the tensions between Washington and Tehran amid the targeting of tankers. However, there are obstacles to this growing Arab openness to Iraq, including the fragility of Iraq’s political structure, which weakens consensus on foreign policy as well as on domestic issues, and the absence of a parliamentary bloc supporting Al-Kadhimi. This is in contrast to pro-Iran blocs, which enjoy a large share in Parliament, particularly Fatah and State of Law. They obstruct any agreements or understandings of the Iraqi government with the Arab states if they feel that these agreements could mean a deduction from their funds or from Iran’s economic gains in Iraq. There is also opposition to Arab-Iraqi rapprochement on the part of Iraqi armed militias loyal to Iran.