Gulf Roundtable: Iraq-GCC Relations: A New Chapter?
Iraq’s recent parliamentary elections show that the biggest divides in Iraq are no longer ethno-sectarian, but between citizens and the elite, argued Dr. Renad Mansour at a recent CSIS Middle East Program roundtable. The resurgence of nationalism in Iraq creates an opportunity for Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states to reengage in the country, but significant constraints remain. To successfully counter Iranian influence in Iraq, GCC states will not only need to continue working with Iraqi Shi`ite politicians, but also rebuild trust with Iraqi citizens who are impatient to see tangible and positive results from GCC engagement. Mansour, a research fellow with the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House and a research fellow at the American University of Iraq - Sulaimani, spoke at a CSIS roundtable on “Iraq-GCC Relations: A New Chapter?” on June 4, 2018.
Changing Engagement Strategies
After Saddam Hussein was ousted in 2003, Iran increased its influence in nearly every aspect of Iraq’s security, economy, and politics. At this point, GCC states’ strategies centered on engaging Sunni groups in Iraq, including small or fringe movements and at times jihadi-salafists, largely to counter Iran’s growing influence, which was couched under the narrative of sectarianism. When the Iraqi Sunni vote split and the strategy failed, Gulf Arab states largely disengaged from Iraq, tacitly and then openly accepting they had been outmaneuvered by Iran.
GCC states still seek to roll back Iranian influence, but they are now adopting a new approach, based in part on a new reading of Iraqi political shifts.
GCC states still seek to roll back Iranian influence, but they are now adopting a new approach, based in part on a new reading of Iraqi political shifts. They have made efforts to reach out to Shi`ite politicians who are positioning themselves as Iraqi nationalists and who may be more hostile to Iran. This move assumed that Iraqi ethnic identity is stronger than sectarian identity. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi and prominent Shi`ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr both visited Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the kingdom in 2017. More recently, al-Sadr visited Kuwait.
These visits demonstrate greater Saudi and Gulf Arab willingness to work with Iraqi Shi`ite politicians, as well as efforts by these same Shi`ite politicians to prove that they are not necessarily pro-Iranian by virtue of sectarian affiliation. Mansour argued that this tactic, in comparison to the old policy, seems to be bearing fruit, as Saudi officials are currently exerting their influence in Baghdad to ensure that Abadi remains prime minister in the new Iraqi government.
Limits to GCC States' Influence
However, there are significant obstacles to increased GCC engagement in Iraq. The Iraqi public has viewed Saudi Arabia with suspicion since the 1990-1991 Gulf War and the kingdom’s subsequent severing of relations. Iraqis are critical of the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen, Bahrain’s treatment of its Shi`a population, and signs that relations between Israel and GCC states may be improving. Many also accuse Saudi Arabia and Qatar of supporting jihadi-salafists in Iraq and the region. In order to regain their trust, Iraqis expect GCC states to support them in a way that brings tangible gains.
Mansour also noted that Saudi Arabia may struggle to build leverage with some of the politicians it is trying to court.
Mansour also noted that Saudi Arabia may struggle to build leverage with some of the politicians it is trying to court. Muqtada al-Sadr opposes all forms of foreign interference in Iraq’s domestic affairs and will likely resist getting too close to any single foreign actor. Meanwhile, Iran has effectively prioritized the long term in its engagement in Iraq and has managed to achieve widespread influence in many sectors of Iraq as a result. Rather than focusing on one person or institution, Iran built influence with both armed and non-armed groups, with Sunni as well as Shi`ite actors, and also with both state and non-state actors. Iran will therefore continue to act as an obstacle to increased GCC engagement in Iraq.
Opportunities for GCC Engagement
Mansour outlined how Iraq’s evolving political dynamics provide various opportunities for GCC states to increase their engagement in Iraq. The record low turnout of 44 percent in Iraq’s May 2018 parliamentary elections demonstrates that Iraqi citizens view politicians as part of a corrupt elite that does not represent them or understand their problems, Mansour argued. The ongoing protest movement since the summer of 2015 demonstrates widespread discontent with Iraq’s political elite that is not expressed along ethno-sectarian lines, with Shi`a protesting against Shi’ite leaders, and Kurds and Sunnis also protesting politicians from their own groups.
If Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries appreciate the seriousness of the divide between Iraqi citizens and the elite and work to bridge it, Mansour argued that their ability to counter Iran’s influence would be greater in Iraq than in other arenas of competition in the region.
If Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries appreciate the seriousness of the divide between Iraqi citizens and the elite and work to bridge it, Mansour argued that their ability to counter Iran’s influence would be greater in Iraq than in other arenas of competition in the region. He noted that despite popular conception, Iran has not always been successful in Iraq: The rise of the Islamic State group (ISG) in 2014 represented a particularly significant failure for Iran.
Now that the ISG has largely been defeated, GCC states have an opportunity to play an important role in supporting reconstruction in liberated areas. While Western countries have signaled that they will limit their support to humanitarian issues, GCC states demonstrated their willingness to provide more substantial support to help rebuild the Iraqi economy and contribute to reconstruction efforts at the 2018 Kuwait International Conference for Reconstruction of Iraq. Mansour highlighted the United Arab Emirates’ pledge of over $50 million to rebuild the Nuri mosque in Mosul that the ISG destroyed as an important symbolic move. However, given widespread corruption in Iraq, Mansour warned that providing funds alone is insufficient and could even exacerbate Iraq’s problems.
Mansour noted that the Iraqi market has long been dominated by Iranian and Turkish products, suggesting that the GCC states have an opportunity to challenge that dominance.
Strengthening trade ties is another way for GCC states to increase their engagement and build leverage. Border crossings between Saudi Arabia and Iraq recently reopened and trade is improving. Mansour noted that the Iraqi market has long been dominated by Iranian and Turkish products, suggesting that the GCC states have an opportunity to challenge that dominance.
The most effective way for GCC states to make the Iraqi state more responsive to citizens’ needs would be to reinforce the importance of transparent and autonomous governing institutions.
Mansour concluded by returning to the gap between citizens and the elite in Iraq. He suggested that the most effective way for GCC states to make the Iraqi state more responsive to citizens’ needs would be to reinforce the importance of transparent and autonomous governing institutions. In particular, he suggested depoliticizing struggling independent commissions that act as a check on political power. Supporting these institutions would help counter corruption, rebuild public trust, limit Iranian influence, and could be an important GCC contribution to Iraq’s stability.