How a cultural approach could rebuild Gulf’s bridges with Iraq
The longstanding break between Iraq and the Gulf nations due to the former’s invasion of Kuwait in the early 1990s, and the later decade-long hiatus that took place following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, have led to a widespread divergence in public opinion in the country and widened the gap between Iraq and the rest of the Arab world.
I am not trying here to condemn any of the parties involved, nor am I attempting to search for the root causes of this schism between Iraq and the wider Arab world. Some argue, however, that the Gulf states’ shunning of Iraq was inevitable, with many analysts suggesting that this split took place at Washington’s behest, since the US opposed the Gulf nations’ engagement with Iraq in the post-2003 period, and then with the sectarian government of former Iraqi premier Nouri Al-Maliki.
This inter-Arab antagonism gave Iran a long-awaited golden opportunity, with Tehran leaping at the chance to foment further division in the region. From the outset, this was a policy that was given the green light, directly or indirectly, by Washington, according to multiple observers. Iran worked tirelessly to fill the vacuum in Iraq left by the end of the former regime and the split with the other Arab states, helping its own allied entities and proxies to take control of Iraq’s state bodies in every sphere, whether political, religious or economic. Here we should point out an important strategic fact: Whilst, strategically speaking, Iran did not create the vacuum, it has filled it extremely fast.
The current tragic realities in Iraq were not created only by Iran’s power or planning; rather they are partly the result of the disengagement, whether optional or enforced, between Iraq and the rest of the Arab world, particularly the Gulf states, which were absent when Iraq most desperately needed them. This absence allowed Iran to strengthen its own presence and influence at every level.
Despite these efforts, however, Iran’s long, antagonistic history with Iraq, both ancient and modern, means that the Iraqi people are unwilling to cede control of their nation. Iraqis’ strong sense of identity, history and cultural distinctiveness gives the nation its own unique character as an Arab state, with its people having both instinctively and intellectually learned to mistrust external intervention generally and, in particular, from Iran.
Iraq’s depth lies within its Arab and Gulf sphere of identity, with a strong popular will to advance ties.
Dr. Mohammed Alsulami
I have personally visited Iraq twice in the last year — the first of these visits was to Baghdad in December 2017, while the second was in October of this year to Irbil in Kurdistan. While the two visits took place under two different political atmospheres and to regions of the country with two very different political and national orientations, both visits led me to conclude that there is a strong desire amongst Iraqis at both grassroots and political levels to strengthen ties with the Arab Gulf nations. I also noted sporadic indications of dissatisfaction from the Iraqis toward Iran in relation to a number of political, economic and national issues.
Meanwhile, in the Gulf states, there appears to be a reciprocal serious wish to build and strengthen strategic relations with Iraq at all levels.
So what problem is preventing the Gulf states and Iraq from reviving their close relations? Maybe there is a divide that they have never been able to successfully bridge. Perhaps this gap has yet to be discovered and contained. It continues to exist even though there are diplomatic missions carrying out liaison roles. I believe, however, that the Gulf states have failed to utilize the best tools in dealing with Iraq.
I assume that a country like Iraq, with its deep-rooted history, rich culture and nationalistic character, needs diplomats from the Gulf who focus intensively on these aspects and interact regularly with Iraq’s intellectual leaders and opinion-shapers across a wide spectrum.
Since the traditional diplomatic character cannot perform this role due to wholly logical reasons, I suggest reconsidering the mechanism by which Gulf states’ envoys to Iraq are selected, giving preference to intellectuals with a deep knowledge and appreciation of the historical, literary and other cultural aspects of the country.
Figures like this would be able to engage with Iraqi society on a deep level and build strong cultural bridges between the nations through holding joint events, whether in Iraq or the Gulf states. This relationship could be further strengthened by inviting Iraqi cultural figures and intellectuals to attend conferences, cultural festivals, book fairs and other events in the Gulf.
The commonalities among the region’s peoples in terms of culture, heritage and civilization transcend political relationships. I would argue that appointing cultured intellectual figures to these diplomatic posts would significantly boost political and social ties between Iraq and the Gulf states within a very short period.
Iraq’s depth lies within its Arab and Gulf sphere of identity, with a strong popular will to advance ties. Attempts to advance these relations, however, require a strong cultural dimension, along with the ongoing political and diplomatic dimensions, joint business ventures and economic relations. If Iraq and the Gulf states continue to downplay or disregard this aspect, the current unsatisfactory status quo could remain as it is for years. Rather than wasting these years, this time should be used wisely to bring the nations together and welcome Iraq in engaging with the Gulf and Arab worlds.
- Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is Head of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami