Betting on Iraq in the Gulf

Greg Bruno
Council on Foreign Relations
Wednesday, July 30, 2008; 10:33 AM

When the United Arab Emirates announced in June it was forgiving billions of dollars in Iraqi debt (Al Arabiya), President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed vowed to alleviate "the economic burden faced by the brotherly Iraqi people." But some observers saw the move more as an investment in security than an economic bailout. "The bottom line is that the Iraqi crisis can spill over to impact the political, security, and strategic scene" in Gulf Arab states, writes Abdulaziz O. Sager, chairman of the Gulf Research Center in Dubai. Arab diplomacy may be " a first step" to containing that threat, Sager writes.

The UAE, which also named an ambassador to Iraq, isn't the only Gulf state reaching out to its troubled neighbor. Jordan named an ambassador to Iraq on July 1, citing the desire for deeper ties fostered by Iraq's improved security (Jordan Times). A week later Bahrain ended a three-year diplomatic absence (Gulf News) in Iraq by announcing its own envoy, filling a void left by the attack on its charge d'affairs in July 2005. On July 17, Kuwait named its first ambassador to Iraq (KUNA) since Saddam Hussein sent forces to invade in 1990, kicking off the first Gulf War. The announcements signal new confidence in Iraq's security situation; no Arab envoy has been stationed in Iraq since Egypt's ambassador was kidnapped and killed in mid-2005 (BBC).

The drive for deeper political ties is part of a balancing act playing out in capitals close to Baghdad. The moves come amid a time of growing Iranian influence in the region. During Saddam's rule, Iraq's Sunni Baathist leaders kept the regional ambitions of Shiite-dominated Iran in check; the two countries waged a bloody war in the 1980s that left both sides battered. But as Shiites assumed power in Iraq, Arab neighbors became skeptical of Baghdad's new ties to Tehran (LAT). As CFR's Vali R. Nasr noted in a 2006 Foreign Affairs article, Iran is emerging as the real beneficiary of Saddam's fall. Most Arab governments, save for Syria, remain skeptical of Iran's nuclear program (The Bulletin). At the same time Gulf states have proven willing to engage Iran in new ways, as evidenced by Iranian attendance at a Gulf Cooperation Council summit late last year (Stratfor).

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has sought to lure neighbors back to Iraq by touting improved security, claims borne out by recent U.S. military statistics (GlobalSecurity). Washington, too, has pushed its Persian Gulf allies to normalize relations with Iraq. Ahead of a regional conference in April, the U.S. secretary of state urged regional states "to live up to their obligations" (Bloomberg). Not all Gulf states complied. Saudi Arabia, for instance, has for a year hinted at debt forgiveness and diplomatic ties but so far has not acted (BBC). (Iraq's public debt to non-Paris Club countries -- mostly in the Persian Gulf -- was originally between $60 billion and $65 billion). But Mark Lynch, a political science professor at George Washington University, writes in his blog that "enough has now happened in the public discourse and in concrete action to think that there's a real Arab (or at least Gulf) policy shift going on here."

Yet in forging closer ties with Baghdad, Arab states are walking a fine line. CFR's Daniel Senor says any impression of "collaborating, cooperating, or colluding in any way with this U.S. presence" could be domestically troublesome for Iraqi partners. Still, observers say, Gulf states have no choice put prepare to fill a security vaccum should U.S. troops depart, particularly with growing discussion in Washington of a "time horizon" for a U.S. troop withdrawal.

© 2008