Iraq in the Middle: Iraq’s Relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Editor’s Note: In an interview with Robert Tollast, F. Gregory Gause III discusses the foreign policy future of Iraq.

Can Iraq become an outward looking nation on the international stage or will it remain doomed to play out its neighbours proxy wars?

Many of us would like to forget about the Iraq conflict. The fact remains however, that the country sits atop an estimated 43 billion barrels of crude oil and straddles a sectarian fault line that looks likely to simmer on the brink of serious violence for some time to come. Therefore, how Maliki’s government can act diplomatically with its neighbours is of importance when trying to understand the increasingly sectarianized politics of the region. This interview asks F. Gregory Gause III about the direction Iraqi foreign policy is heading, and asks if we are doing enough to avert future crisis.


Robert Tollast (RT): In February, there was some excitement at the prospect of rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iraq when Saudi Arabia reopened their Iraqi Embassy, even though it will be based in Amman. It was enough for Iraq’s deputy minister of foreign affairs Labeed Abbawi to hail  “a new phase of bilateral co-operation and an exchange of visits.” Looking at the current controversy surrounding Bahrain and Saudi concerns over Iranian plans in the region, one could surmise that this rapprochement is not based on good will, but realpolitik. Iraq is looking to reopen an oil pipeline with the capacity to export nearly 1.5 million barrels per day to the Saudi port of Yanbu on the Red Sea, thereby reducing dependence on the Straits of Hormuz. There is also the issue of Saddam era debt cancellation and the fact that in February the Iraqis were desperate for Arab delegations to attend the Baghdad Summit, so were rapidly trying to mend fences. Do you think the Iraqis are reaching out to Saudi Arabia for their own ends, or do you think this might reflect something more genuine, ie good will? If it is good will, then maybe the Arar border crossing could see as much commerce as it does Hajj pilgrims…

Gregory Gause (GG):  I think that the talk about improved relations was a blip, basically generated by Iraq’s desire to get a good turnout at the summit and Saudi technical issues in terms of summit prep.  Of course, the Saudi presence at the summit was very low-level, which was a pretty clear signal to the Iraqi government that Riyadh was not in much of a mood to make nice.  On the Iraqi side, I think that the outreach was more genuine.  I do not think that Maliki wants to be a client of Iran.  No politician really wants to be anybody’s client.  I think that he wants to have better relations with Saudi Arabia to give him some options vis a vis Iran.  But the Saudis are stonewalling until they see him take some very significant steps to demonstrate his independence from Iran. 

A common enemy?

RT: Going back to the dark days of 2007 in Iraq, around 40% of foreign fighters infiltrating into the country were Saudi Arabian. The situation is so different in Iraq now partly because al-Qaeda’s uncompromising approach in western Iraq was ultimately rejected by Iraqi Sunnis. Much credit has to go to the Saudis, following the entreaties of Ryan Crocker and Dell L. Dailey to curb extremism and secure their borders.

However, despite Saudi progress in combating extremism and their much vaunted extremist rehabilitation programmes, the damage to Saudi Arabia’s image in Iraq has been extensive. Fanar Haddad has documented in his book Sectarianism in Iraq, how the Sadrists have frequently referred to terrorists in Iraq not as Salafi or Irhabeen (terrorists) but Wahabis, which not only implies Saudi origin but also evokes the historical memory of the sacking of Karbala in 1801. Likewise, it was only a few years ago that King Abdullah called Maliki “an Iranian agent.” As AQ’s leader once again urges the toppling of the House of Saud, do you think Iraq and Saudi Arabia can build bridges to fight the common enemy? For example, Maliki’s media advisor Ali al-Musawi recently stated that “Both countries are facing threats from al-Qaeda. And it is necessary to cooperate and to exchange information.”

GG:  This would be an excellent basis for improved relations, if the Saudis saw their domestic al-Qaeda tendency as their biggest threat.  But right now they see Iran as their biggest geopolitical and, potentially, domestic threat.  And they see the Maliki government as being very closely aligned with Iran.  Bahrain is both a domestic and a regional issue for the Saudis, and I think it is at the top of the Saudi priority list right now.  They see Iraq as basically supporting Iranian positions on Bahrain and Gulf issues more generally.

Human Rights Watch

RT: The last Human Rights Watch report on Iraq report details how security forces detained as many as 1500 Iraqis under suspicion of being Ba’athists or “terrorists” in recent months. The bulk of the latest detaining campaign happened in western suburbs of Baghdad, so we can assume that most of the terror/ Ba’ath suspects were of Sunni origin (as with many similar campaigns in the past.) Perhaps the only time hundreds of Shia were rounded up by the ISF was during Operation Charge of the Knights in 2008, which won Maliki some short lived respect from the Saudis. 

But the recent ISF campaign will appear sectarian to many (some of those on ISF arrest lists had been dead for several years) while many Shia in Iraq continue to be outraged at discrimination towards Saudi Arabia’s Shia minority, something highlighted as still persistent in the latest Human Rights Watch report on Saudi Arabia and clearly apparent in the form of hunger striking Shia activist Mohammed Saleh al-Bajady.

The US has made some quite limited attempts to persuade Saudi Arabia and Iraq to improve their human rights, or at least curtail abuses, but colossal arms sales go ahead, even as the latest State Department country report on Saudi Arabia shows the US government is not in denial over their human rights record. Could our failure to reprimand these two nations on the issue of the rights of minorities be emboldening those with a sectarian agenda, increasing mistrust and ultimately paving the way for conflict?  

GG:  I do not think that the American position here has much causal weight on either side.  Even if the US were more forthright about human rights issues with both Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and was willing to hold up other aspects of the relationship unless there were improvement on the treatment of sectarian minorities, I do not think it would make that much difference.  Both governments have defined their internal and regional threats in sectarian ways, it seems, and once a government has defined its biggest threat, it takes quite a bit of pressure to move it off that position. So, for all the obvious reasons, the US is not going to make sectarian minority human rights issues a big part of the bilateral relationship with either Riyadh or Baghdad (maybe a bit more with Baghdad, but more in political stability than human rights terms).  Even if it did, I do not think it could move the two governments off their current policies in this regard.  In the end, I think that the only thing that could move Saudi Arabia on the sectarian issue would be improved relations with Iran. That would also loosen things up regarding Saudi-Iraqi relations.  But it does not look like that is in the cards anytime soon.

A united GCC policy toward Iraq?

RT: The approach toward Maliki’s Iraq has differed somewhat between the GCC countries. Kuwait, for example has shown some genuine warmth to the nation that once sent its troops to pillage Kuwait City, despite the dispute over the Mubarak and al-Faw ports. Likewise, the UAE has been happy to do business with the new Iraq and Qatars national oil company,Woqod has won various service contracts. But other tensions, such as the situation in Bahrain and the Tariq al Hashemi saga seem like a major stumbling block. Do you think the GCC countries are too different to follow a joint foreign policy toward Iraq? It seems like the GCC countries most open to reform are happiest to build bridges with Iraq.

GG:  I would disagree on the reform point.  Neither Qatar nor the UAE is all that keen on real political reform.  But neither is as obsessed about sectarian politics as is Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.  Kuwait has taken some interesting steps here, including having the Amir attend the summit.  But the core issues in the Kuwaiti-Iraqi relationship (the “debt”, reparations, Chapter 7, border, etc.) are tied up with Kuwaiti parliamentary politics, and it will be harder to get issues seen as “pro-Iraqi” through the parliament.  The government could take more steps toward Iraq, but parliament will put a stop to moves on these key issues, I think.  At least any Kuwaiti minister contemplating moves in this direction has to think about the parliamentary reaction.  This is the only GCC state where this is true.

I think that you are right about the GCC states being too different to have one comprehensive policy toward Iraq.  This was true in the last years of Saddam’s rule, and it remains true now.  The UAE and Qatar will do business with Iraq happily (Oman, too, but not as much money there).  Bahrain will follow Saudi Arabia, for which the sectarian issue and relations with Iran will continue to determine the nature of Saudi-Iraqi relations.  Kuwait will be cautious but not confrontational.

The end of Assad

RT: America and Europe have essentially warned that sending arms to Syria is a bad idea while supporting the odd grey area of “non lethal aid,” in the form of equipment such as secure radios so that the FSA can talk to each other safely while planning their next lethal attack. This seems like an oddly indecisive policy. Meanwhile, the US entreaty to Saudi Arabia and Qatar not to send arms to the fight looks increasingly feeble, and so far we have managed to persuade Iraq (who have virtually no control over their airspace) to politely ask Iran to stop sending arms flights to Syria. Alas, the Iraqi Minister of Transport Hadi al-Amiri is head of the Badr Organisation, and claimed the flights were “US lies.” Can we do more with our use of leverage to stop what you termed the “sectarianization” of regional balance of power conflicts in the Middle East?

GG:  I am not sure that the US can do more on this score. As you said in the question, our opposition to arms shipments to the Syrian rebels is pretty half-hearted, maybe even one-quarter-hearted. I do not think that the Saudis and the Qataris feel any real push-back from the US on this. Our influence with Iran on this is, of course, negligible. As long as Iran wants to do it, I doubt that the Iraqi government would be able to summon the political will and internal unity to say “no.”

The only steps the US could take on this score would be big steps toward ending its confrontation with Iran, not only on the nuclear file but on a range of regional issues. That would change the regional environment quite a bit, and other pieces could fall into new places, including Iraqi-Iranian and Saudi-Iranian relations. (At least initially, the Saudis would not be so pleased with the US if a US-Iranian rapprochement were reached, either.) Perhaps that is a possibility, but right now I remain skeptical that it can happen. A breakthrough on the nuclear issue can lead to something different, but we need to see that breakthrough happen. Even if Iran were willing to compromise on the nuclear file, it does not seem willing to abandon Assad, and that remains the key geopolitical struggle for regional influence right now.