UAE reaches out to Iraq to counter Iranian influence in the Levant
Iraqi officials reject being pulled into regional conflict
As a momentous year draws to a close, The National is running a series of articles examining the impact of the growing diplomatic strength of the UAE.
Over the next few days, we will examine the country’s growing international influence, be it through the soft power of culture and connectivity, or strengthening ties within the GCC and further around the globe.
This nation has never had a more prominent position in the world – and this series will explain how it was achieved, why it matters and what lies ahead.
As the US and its allies warn of Iran’s destabilising influence in the region, the UAE has set its sight on strong relations with key players to offset Tehran’s ability to dictate Iraqi policies.
For years Baghdad has seen itself caught in the crossfire between Washington and Tehran - a role recently exacerbated by US sanctions on Iran.
Tehran’s sway over Baghdad dates back to over a decade ago, when dictator Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003.
But some in Iraq’s newly formed government are pushing for a change in the status quo.
In his recent trip to Abu Dhabi Iraqi President Barham Salih said one of his aims is to improve ties with Iraq’s neighbouring states and avoid being drawn into regional conflicts.
Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi echoed Mr Salih’s remarks, saying that “Iraq does not wish to become part of a struggle to which it is no party,” in a reference to tensions between Washington and Tehran.
The UAE sees this step as a crucial moment to re-engage with Iraq.
Elizabeth Dickinson, a senior analyst for the Arabian Peninsula at the International Crisis Group said that many see the last 15 years of strained relations between the Gulf and Iraq as pushing Baghdad towards Tehran.
"Abu Dhabi would like to see Iraq move back into the Arab centre. It's important that Iraqi President Barham Salih visited UAE, this is a signal that it's time for a new chapter," Ms Dickinson told The National.
Mr Salih’s visit came in the wake of major turmoil in the country, including the reconstruction of former ISIS-held areas and a dire economic crisis that has triggered protests across the country. As a result, Iraq sees a need to reconnect with old allies for support, explained Ms Dickinson.
“The Emirates is proceeding with caution, as economic and cultural ties have the most potential to accelerate in the short term,” she said.
It was in July 1990, that the UAE came under attack by the Iraqi leadership over its oil policy. But today Abu Dhabi is taking a more positive outlook, resulting in a full restoration of diplomatic ties with Iraq.
Turning a new page
The UAE signalled its desire to strengthen ties with Iraq during talks with influential Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr last year, it was seen as part of efforts by Sunni nations to halt Iran’s growing regional influence.
Abu Dhabi has been vocal in expressing its concerns over Tehran’s increasing influence in the region - often projected through allied Shiite militias from Lebanon, to Iraq and all the way to Yemen.
Mr Al Sadr’s meeting with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, opened a window of opportunity to ease Iraq’s diplomatic isolation from the Gulf.
The two leaders have discussed ways of improving understanding between the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam.
“The two sides emphasised the importance to act in true Islamic spirit and reject violence and extremist thought,” Mr Al Sadr’s office in Baghdad said in a statement.
By building close ties with Mr Al Sadr, who commands a large following among Baghdad’s urban society and southern Iraq, it would help the UAE loosen Tehran’s grip over Iraq’s Shiite community and contain its influence.
Assisting Iraq in reconstruction
Experts believe that unlike Syria and Lebanon, Iraq represents a better chance for Abu Dhabi to gain a foothold and push against Iran.
This, they say, is being done through the reconstruction of the war-torn country. Iraq faces a monumental challenge after a devastating three-year war against ISIS.
This year, the UAE said it would finance a $50.4 million project to rebuild the Grand Al Nuri Mosque in Mosul, famous for its eighth-century-old leaning minaret, destroyed by ISIS last year.
It was from Al Nuri that the militant group leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi declared a self-styled “caliphate” in 2014.
"This is a hugely significant move that indicates the UAE's support for a pluralistic Iraq that rises above sectarian rhetoric and politics," Ms Dickinson said.
The government estimates Mosul alone needs at least $2 billion in reconstruction aid to rehabilitate roads and rebuild homes, schools and hospitals destroyed in the fighting.
By assisting Iraq in rebuilding liberated areas, the UAE hopes to provide some welcome balance to Iranian influence in the region, Andrew Parasiliti of the RAND Cooperation told The National.
Updated: December 26, 2018 03:13 PM