Jordan-Egypt-Iraq alliance ready to blossom
Jordan, Egypt and Iraq are coming together to bolster ties and build a common regional vision amid changing geopolitical realities. On Sunday, King Abdullah, President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi held a one-day summit in Baghdad, their third within three years, during which they discussed common challenges and agreed to strengthen economic cooperation.
But it will take years to translate the leaders’ vision into reality. That vision, as described by Al-Kadhimi, would see a “new Levant” emerging after the decades of turmoil that has swept the region, featuring a US invasion of Iraq, sectarian infighting, Iranian meddling in the affairs of Iraq and Syria, and the emergence of Daesh and its offshoots. The fact this was the first visit by an Egyptian head of state to Baghdad in decades was another indicator of Cairo slowly regaining its regional leadership role.
One of the main objectives of the Baghdad summit was to help war-torn Iraq reclaim its position within the Arab world after years of isolation, chaos and bloodshed. Without naming Iran, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Al-Safadi said that “Iraq must be isolated from regional interventions,” in reference to Tehran’s influence.
Since Al-Kadhimi took over as prime minister in May 2020, he has tried to neutralize Iran’s interference in Iraq’s domestic politics, with modest results. He has also sought to take his country out of the US-Iran showdown. Iran’s backing of Shiite militias under the banner of the Popular Mobilization Units remains one of the biggest challenges for the central government.
Also under Al-Kadhimi, Baghdad has moved closer to the Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, which has boosted its diplomatic presence in Iraq in recent years. Baghdad hopes to play a mediator role between Riyadh and Tehran.
Aside from bringing Iraq into the Arab fold — a move that was welcomed by the US — Jordan and Egypt hope that the three countries can benefit from more focused economic cooperation. Since 2019, both Amman and Cairo have signed a number of memorandums with Baghdad covering various economic and development areas. In the 1980s and 1990s, Iraq used to be Jordan’s main export market, while Amman was the recipient of cheap Iraqi oil. Also during that period and until Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, millions of Egyptians worked in Iraq, especially in the agricultural sector.
But now the three countries are seeking to elevate their economic cooperation. Jordan wants to see an oil pipeline linking Basra to Aqaba — an old project — finally executed. It also wants to launch a joint industrial city on the Jordan-Iraq border, while renegotiating free trade agreements. For Egypt, the linking of its electricity grid with Jordan and Iraq could ease Baghdad’s endemic power shortages, while Cairo also hopes to play a key role in reconstruction projects across Iraq.
Their vision would see a ‘new Levant’ emerging after the decades of turmoil that has swept the region.
On the political side, the three leaders are on the same page in pointing to the centrality of the Palestinian issue and the need to resolve it, and to Jordan’s special role in East Jerusalem. They also support political settlements to the crises in Yemen, Libya and Syria. Al-Kadhimi’s vision of a “new Levant” would be boosted further if Syria could one day join this alliance.
There are immediate common challenges that the three countries can work to confront, namely the coronavirus pandemic and terrorism. But there are also a number of individual challenges that each country has to deal with separately. For Cairo, the current crisis with Addis Ababa over the planned second stage of filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam reservoir next month in the absence of an agreement represents an existential threat. Amman and Baghdad back Cairo’s stand, but beyond political support the issue will have to be resolved by Egypt and Sudan, including the possibility of a military intervention. Egypt is also concerned with the outcome of the political process in neighboring Libya.
For Jordan, the Palestinian issue remains central to its foreign policy, while Amman is dealing with an unprecedented economic crisis as it launches a much-needed process to achieve political reforms. Jordan is also facing a crucial water shortage crisis.
For Iraq, achieving internal reconciliation and cushioning the country against a spillover of the US-Iran confrontation are major objectives. The holding of legislative elections this October will mark an important step toward meeting people’s demands to stamp out corruption, improve the state’s human rights record and boost the level of public services, as well as create jobs.
All three countries have their own peculiar challenges to deal with. The alliance will be tested, just as the Arab Cooperation Council, of which the three countries were members, was tested in 1990, only to unravel as a result of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. This time, their need for each other in a fast-changing region has never been greater and expectations have never been higher.
• Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010