Iraq seeks to build economic and political cooperation with Egypt and Jordan, a project that has been obstructed several times over the past few years. The tripartite summit, which was held on 25 August 2020 between Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and King Abdullah of Jordan, comes within this endeavour, which also comes in light of a geopolitical situation that includes challenges for those countries and for the entire Arab region.
Third summit in two years
The tripartite summit which was held in Jordan came within a series of joint efforts by the three countries to form the nucleus of a promising regional cooperation project. It is the third summit that brings together the leaders of the three countries in two years. The first summit was held on 25 March 2019 in Egypt, bringing together President Sisi, King Abdullah, and former Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi. The circumstances surrounding Abdul Mahdi's government and the domination by the pro-Iran political factions of his political decision resulted in failure to make progress therein, before Abdul Mahdi was ousted in the October 2019 protests to be replaced by Kadhimi. The second summit was held in New York, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on 22 September 2019. It brought together Iraqi President Barham Salih, who is the most prominent advocate of the tripartite project, President Sisi, and King Abdullah. It underlined the insistence on coordination and joint action to achieve the goals of the project. However, at the last summit, the three sides took a more serious step on the road to enhancing coordination between them, with the Summit deciding to form a permanent secretariat for coordination on the tripartite cooperation files. Its headquarters would be in Amman for the first year, and then the capitals of the three countries would rotate in hosting it annually.
The three summits, especially the one held recently, are of great importance in terms of their timing. The region is witnessing a state of uncertainty and congestion with the escalation of tension between the US and Iran. The Iranian expansion is the largest in the Arab region, starting from Iraq, through Syria and Lebanon, and ending in Yemen. The region also suffers from the escalation of Turkey’s ambitions to the point of direct intervention in Libya, military assaults in northern Iraq, and the consolidation of its presence in northern Syria. The region is also facing the challenge of the collapse of the Palestinian cause and the practical undermining of the two-state solution, with the threat this poses to Jordan's security, in addition to the threat to Egypt’s water security by the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
The outcomes of the three summits underline important indications, the most prominent of which being the keenness of the three countries to enhance joint cooperation, benefit from the potential provided by their geographical interconnection and the integration of their economic interests, and the recognition of the importance of joint action to restore stability in the region and confront foreign interventions that undermine Arab security.
Iraq's strategic motives
Iraq seems to be the catalyst for this movement. This is attributable to strategic, economic and political reasons, the most important of which are the following:
First, for three decades, Iraq has been aware of the precariousness of its strategic oil situation. The country, which ranks fifth in the world and second in the Arab world in terms of oil reserves, has a single major export outlet through the ports of Basra, passing through the Strait of Hormuz and the Arabian Sea, both of which are subject to Iranian threats. The other limited pipeline is linked to Turkey through the port of Ceyhan. Iraq's fears have been seriously exacerbated after the escalation of US-Iranian tension following Washington's withdrawal from the nuclear agreement in May 2018 and Tehran's threat to close the Strait of Hormuz and disturb the peace of navigation in the Arabian Gulf and the Arabian Sea. Iran has also indicated a willingness to carry out its threats after it targeted sailing ships in the past few months. Iraq, which exports 90 percent of its oil through the ports of Basra in the Arabian Gulf and onwards through the Strait of Hormuz and the Arabian Sea, sensed the danger of the disruption of maritime traffic for its economic situation which is almost completely dependent on oil exports as a source of national income. Thus, the Iraqi government took the initiative to revive the project of building a new strategic oil pipeline that starts from the Rumaila fields in Basra Governorate to the port of Aqaba on the Red Sea, so that the pipeline would extend to Egypt and onwards to international markets. Thus, Iraq would benefit from diversifying its oil export methods and increase its export capacity to keep pace with the growth in the volume of its oil production, which is supposed to reach six million barrels in the near term, in addition to the fact that the pipeline would reduce the pressure imposed on Iraq by Iran that can threaten shipping traffic in the Strait of Hormuz and the Arabian Sea.
Second, Iraq suffers from limited trade relations and their concentration in Turkey and Iran, in conjunction with the imbalance in the trade balance with these two countries. Iran’s goods exports to Iraq is worth nearly 12 billion dollars annually, and it seeks to increase them to 20 billion dollars annually, while the value of Turkish exports is nearly 15 billion dollars annually. Iraq's import restrictions have pushed both countries to exploit the opportunity and export inferior and expensive goods. Therefore, Iraq seeks to expand its range of trade relations and develop trade exchange with Arab countries, including Jordan and Egypt, each having trade with Iraq worth less than one billion dollars annually. The Iraqi-Egyptian-Jordanian understanding includes the establishment of an integrated economic zone with customs and tax exemptions and benefits.
Third, one of the main points of the tripartite understanding is electrical interconnection. Electricity is considered one of Iraq's main crises due to Iran's domination of this sensitive sector by up to 40 percent of Iraq’s energy production. Therefore, linking Iraq to the energy grid of Jordan and Egypt, as well as with the Gulf network, would contribute to reducing Iraq's dependence on Iran for energy imports. This would bring independence to Iraq, as well as ease the US pressure on Iraq with regard to adhering to the sanctions imposed on Iran.
Fourth, Iraq’s need for the Arab depth, as opposed to Iranian influence and Turkish expansion in its north, especially since Jordan and Egypt do not raise the sensitivity of Iran and the Iraqi Shiite powers loyal to it compared to the Gulf states. Therefore, this cooperation between Iraq, Jordan and Egypt provides an opportunity for Iraq to regain part of its stolen sovereignty from Iran.
The "New Levant" project
The understanding between the three countries is based on establishing what Kadhimi described in statements to the US Washington Post newspaper as "the New Levant" according to the European model of regional integration. This would be based on economic interests, represented by the fields of energy, electrical interconnection and trade exchange, which would subsequently drive towards strengthening political and security coordination. Some analyses considered that the Amman Summit comes as part of a strategic shift of Iraqi policy towards the Mediterranean region which has become the centre of gravity for international and regional competition.
The economic aspect had a significant presence on the agenda of the tripartite summit. Iraq would benefit from the arrival of its oil exports to the Mediterranean via Jordan and Egypt. On the other hand, Iraq is a rich oil country. Despite its suffering from a financial and economic crisis, it can provide economic benefits to the other two countries. The Iraqi oil pipeline will provide Jordan with oil resources at lower prices than the market, in addition to transit fees, while Jordan can boost its exports to Iraq, especially agricultural, food and pharmaceutical exports. It can also activate its transport and logistics sector. Egypt also has an interest in exporting to the Iraqi market and employing its labour there.
Despite the optimism brought about by the tripartite summit between the leaders of Iraq, Egypt and Jordan, and the initial consensus in the political and economic fields, the summit is not expected to turn into a real cooperative framework in the future for several reasons, the most prominent of which are the following:
Finally, the success of these three parties in creating a state of economic interdependence and institutionalizing coordination between them will remain the indicator of the future of this project and the possibility of its development into a broader regional framework for cooperation and integration.
Dr. Ebtesam al-Ketbi | 24 Sep 2020
Malik al-Hafez | 13 Sep 2020
Bilal Abdullah | 10 Sep 2020