Iraq's Reintegration into the Arab World

Written by Yoel Guzansky


INSS Insight No. 130

In light of the redeployment of the American forces and despite the current tensions with Syria, Iraq is taking measured steps in order to reintegrate into the Arab world. In this context, Egypt recently named an ambassador to Baghdad, while Qatar, Oman, and Saudi Arabia have signaled that they will post ambassadors to Baghdad when the security situation is stabilized. It is not inconceivable that this willingness on the part of Arab nations to expand diplomatic relations with Baghdad and thereby strengthen their interests there is an attempt to curb Iran's growing influence in Iraq. For its part, Iraq is seeking to cooperate more closely with Arab nations in order to encourage them to forgo past debts, renew investments, and abstain from negative interference in its internal matters.

Iraq's Arab neighbors cautioned against the war and felt distanced from the decision making process that preceded the fall of Saddam's regime. Sunni regimes, particularly in the Gulf, claimed that toppling Saddam's regime would not necessarily bring stability to Iraq, and some even found it difficult to express public support for the American war effort. Nevertheless, some of the Gulf nations, particularly Kuwait, made their territory available to the forces attacking Iraq. At first, the toppling of Saddam brought a sense of relief to the Arab world, but as Iraq became a battlefield for extreme interethnic strife, Gulf states began to worry about the potential fallout.

The completion of the redeployment of the American forces in Iraq on June 28, 2009, whereby US troops left city centers - before Iraqi security forces were fully prepared - is liable, in the view of these countries, to prompt interethnic tensions to spill over across their borders. The growing strength of the Shiites in Iraq under America's aegis has been a major source of aggravation for Sunni leaders who are worried by what is perceived as the Iraqi government's inability to protect Sunni interests. In the nations that are home to significant Shiite populations such as Bahrain (70 percent), Kuwait (30 percent), and Saudi Arabia (15 percent), there is a growing concern that Shiite demands for improved economic conditions and political representation might become more insistent, or that, with Iran's encouragement and support, the Shiite populations might rebel, as has happened in the past.

In the eyes of some Arab nations, particularly Saudi Arabia, the Iraq of the al-Maliki regime is a clear proxy of Iran, which is willing to do anything to increase its influence with all elements of power in Iraq before the expected exit of American forces. It may be that Iraq's neighbors are also worried about the solidification of a democratic model in Iraq that might provide an alternative to the monarchies and totalitarian regimes, which for some time have had to deal with growing demands for government reforms and greater liberalization of the political process.

Nonetheless, a number of Arab nations have extended their hand to al-Maliki's government, and diplomatic relations developed gradually after Saddam's fall from power. At first, the United States did not look kindly on external interference in Iraq's affairs, but this started to change in the middle of 2007 as the security situation began to improve. Before this improvement diplomatic representatives were targeted for attack by jihadists. The event that earned most attention was the kidnapping and murder of an Egyptian diplomat in July 2005, a month after being posted to the Iraqi capital. That same month also saw attacks on diplomats from Bahrain and Pakistan, causing the withdrawal of most Arab ambassadors from Baghdad.

With the blessing of the Bush administration, Iraq and its Arab neighbors started normal bilateral relations. The UAE appointed an ambassador to Baghdad (June 2008), and a month later it also forfeited a $7 billion Iraqi debt. Other relations were slowly renewed: King Abdullah of Jordan was the first Arab leader to visit Iraq (August 2008) after the fall of Saddam, and Kuwait's first ambassador in Baghdad presented his credentials. This week, Iraq's national airline started operating flights to Doha (for the first time in 18 years), in addition to the weekly flights its now operates to Cairo, Amman, Dubai, and Damascus. Meetings at the level of government ministers are now routine, and there are also joint working groups discussing security, refugees, the economy, and energy. There has even been an increase, albeit modest, in foreign investments in Iraq.

Yet despite these developments, there are still several outstanding issues that have left residual resentments in relations.

Syria. Despite the fact that diplomatic relations with Iraq were renewed in 2006, the growing strength of Baathists in Syria after the fall of Saddam, the presence of over one million Iraqi refugees in Syria, and the fact that the Syrian-Iraqi border is the main gateway for terrorists entering Iraq cast a pall on the relations between the two countries. As a result of the violent attacks on August 19, the two countries recalled their respective ambassadors and are now assisted by external mediation in overcoming their differences. Iraq is demanding the extradition of the terrorists responsible for the attacks who, it claims, are in Syria, whereas Syria claims that by making these accusations al-Maliki is trying to avoid taking responsibility for the deterioration of the security situation. It is also possible that al-Maliki is trying to leverage American pressure on Syria in order to extort certain changes from it, such as sealing the common border. Syria has been placed in an awkward position because it is trying to prove to the United States that it is making real efforts to prevent terrorists from entering Iraq from Syria.

Jordan. The kingdom opposed the war in 2003, but at the same time also gave tacit assistance to the Americans. Since then, Jordan has consistently criticized what it sees as the ongoing marginalization of the Sunnis. However, unlike Iraq's other neighbors, Jordan has only limited ability to intervene in Iraq's internal affairs and is concerned about the effect that the Iraqi situation has on Jordan's national politics, economy, and security. Since 2007, Jordan has tried to seal its border with Iraq in order to prevent refugees, especially destitute ones, from joining the half million Iraqis who have already sought refuge in Jordan and are a burden on the economy.

Kuwait. Kuwait, which just marked 19 years since the Iraqi invasion, has differences of opinion with Iraq over the international border (and the oil fields running down its length) and the compensation Iraq is required to pay as mandated by the UN. While early in the year Kuwaiti foreign minister al-Sabah paid an historic visit to Baghdad - the first of a senior Kuwaiti personage since 1990 - Kuwait still refuses to erase or even decrease the Iraqi debt.

Saudi Arabia. Relations between the two countries are tense, despite the fact that overlapping interests between the two countries generated cooperation, especially during the Iran-Iraq War. Saudi Arabia opposed the 2003 war, but ultimately granted the United States logistical assistance, and has entreated America not to leave Iraq prematurely. Its major concerns are preventing the spillover of the Iraqi conflict into its own territory, watching out for Sunni interests, and attempting to block the increasing influence of Iran in Iraq. In the long term, Saudi Arabia is concerned that the reconstruction of the Iraqi oil industry will come at the expense of its own status as the leading oil exporter, and that Iraq will rebuild its military strength and once again threaten the Gulf states. Since 2003, Saudi Arabia has avoided overt political and military interference in Iraqi affairs and is instead focusing on constructing security barriers along the joint border and following people leaving Saudi Arabia for Iraq.

To the extent possible, the Iraqi government must develop a sense of Iraqi national identity within the Arab world, and sketch out a new foreign and security policy. In light of the gradual exit of American forces from its territory, Iraq will have to balance its ties with Iran in the east against its ties with its Arab neighbors to the west and south. Lately, it seems as if al-Maliki is doing precisely that: he is sending Iran messages about its over-involvement in Iraq and is stressing to Arab listeners the steps he is taking on behalf of the Sunni community.


The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) is an independent academic institute that studies key issues relating to Israel's national security and Middle East affairs. Through its mixture of researchers with backgrounds in academia, the military, government, and public policy, INSS is able to contribute to the public debate and governmental deliberation of leading strategic issues and offer policy analysis and recommendations to decision makers and public leaders, policy analysts, and theoreticians, both in Israel and abroad. As part of its mission, it is committed to encourage new ways of thinking and expand the traditional contours of establishment analysis.

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