x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Time is right for Gulf states to rethink approach to Iraq

The Gulf states need to recognise the new reality that Iraq is a Shia-majority country and to start to improve the relationship. Above all, they have to address rising sectarian tensions in the region.

For the Arab Gulf states, the war that began in 2003 was the herald of a new relationship with Iraq, a country that had long been ruled by a hostile regime, threatened its neighbours and had briefly subjugated one of them - Kuwait.

But 10 years after the US-led invasion, the picture in Baghdad looks extremely bleak from this side of the Gulf. An Iraq dominated by the pro-Iranian Shia is seen as just as threatening as an Iraq led by the Sunni Saddam Hussein.The mantra in the Gulf is that Baghdad has been handed over to the Iranians on a golden plate. Some even perceive Baghdad's special relationship with Iran as part of a US grand strategy to pit the countries of the region against each other. Such self-defeating thinking is one reason why Baghdad has been drifting towards Tehran. It is time for the Gulf states to revisit their approach to Iraq.

Gulf states do not welcome the fact that Baghdad will probably always be dominated by Shia politicians. For them, the question is how to subdue Iraq, rather than how to work with it. They also tend to view Iraq's relationship with Iran through a zero-sum mindset: Baghdad can either be an ally against Iran, or it can be an enemy.

Riyadh does not have meaningful diplomatic representation in Baghdad, despite repeated Iraqi attempts to improve relations with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf at large. For example, at the beginning of trouble in Syria, Iraq supported almost all Gulf-led Arab resolutions against the Syrian regime; it began to show opposition after the Arab Summit in Baghdad in March of last year, to which few Gulf states sent high-level representation. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have not tried hard enough to resolve outstanding disputes with Iraq, involving borders and prisoners. The Arar border crossing between Saudi Arabia and Iraq is still closed, although Riyadh promised last year to open it for trade.

The key to better relationships is, counterintuitively, a stronger and more stable Iraq. Saudi Arabia, in particular, has long sought to weaken Iraq to ensure its own regional standing. Since the Iraq war, Riyadh's policy has evolved into attempts to contain Baghdad and push it away from Tehran.

An economically and politically viable Iraq will seek its own influence in the region, rather than being influenced by Iran and other countries. And due to US influence, Iraq is unlikely to be a security threat as it was under Saddam. Iraq is projected to be the second largest oil exporter after Saudi Arabia by the end of this decade. Iran, on the other hand, is feeling the squeeze of western sanctions.

The Gulf states need to recognise the new reality that Iraq is a Shia-majority country that will become a regional power and to start now to improve the relationship.

A regime change in Syria, among other factors, presents such an opportunity. The downfall of the pro-Iranian regime in Damascus will make Iraq's relationship with Iran less sustainable. The Syria-Iran alliance has made it economically possible for Iraq to do without its Gulf neighbours.

Iraqi officials close to the prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki, often reiterate that Baghdad does not need its Arab neighbours. But a new political order in Syria will force Iraq to seek better relations.

Most importantly, the Gulf states have to be fully aware that no true rapprochement with Iraq will be possible without addressing rising sectarian sentiments in the region. Shia-Sunni tensions in the Gulf region, especially in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, reflect on the Iraqi Shia's attitudes towards the Gulf. Sectarian sentiments once benefited the Sunni Arab states in their attempt to counter the rising power of the Iran-Syria-Hizbollah alliance in the region, as they sought to emphasis the sectarian nature of that alliance. But the changes in Iraq, and potentially in Syria, make such sentiments more self-defeating than ever.

The Gulf states have tremendous advantages over Iran to win Shia Arabs to their side. They have superior resources and media outlets to reduce sectarian tensions and directly address their Shia communities. Media channels that promote sectarianism must be held accountable. Tribal links with Iraqi Shia can be harnessed to counter Iranian influence and emphasise national sentiments.

Clerical rivalry and differences between Iraqi clergy in Iraq and Iran - over the concept of religious guardianship - can also be harnessed. The differences among Shia clerics on imamate (the concept of who can lead Muslims) are as deep as the differences between Shia and Sunni Muslims over the caliphate (the authority of early Muslim rulers who succeeded the Prophet). But none of these dynamics will make a difference, without addressing sectarian tensions.

In the years before the uprising in Syria, the Gulf states had unprecedented rapprochement with Damascus after years of deeply toxic relations. This included mutual high-level visits: President Bashar Al Assad visited Saudi Arabia three times after 2009 and the Saudi King visited Damascus in 2009. Gulf investments in Syria increased steadily.

Rapprochement with Iraq is even more possible because the Baghdad government has internal rivals, including Sunni Arabs and Kurds, that can make it moderate its position. Syria's threats to the Gulf was worse than Iraq's will ever be; Syria directly threatened and interfered in other countries. Iraq has not shown such tendency. The ball is in the Gulf's court.

 

hhassan@thenational.ae

Follow on Twitter: @hhassan140