The “New Levant” Project: Likely Opportunities, Challenges and Trajectories

EPC | 07 Sep 2020

The "New Levant (Mashreq)" project, proposed by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, is a qualitative event in the reality of the region that has been witnessing divisions and tensions between the various parties. This indicates the nature of the challenges facing the project and the difficulties that may block its path. Despite its economic title, the project entails political and strategic dimensions. However, the question being raised is: do its parties have the capability, desire and will to transform the project into a geopolitical project that is capable of proving its presence in the region's equations and balances?

This paper sheds light on the aforementioned project, and clarifies its opportunities, challenges and expected paths.

The nature of the project

The "New Levant” project is based on linking Egypt which constitutes a large population and has its expertise in many fields and location on the Mediterranean, with Iraq which has large oil resources, and Jordan which has good economic advantages. The project focuses on economic cooperation and the promotion of investment and trade aspects between the three countries, in a plan in which there would be more freedom of capital and technology flows, and is expected to encourage other countries to inject new investments into the region.

The alliance is being built on economic understandings between the three countries, which have a combined GDP of nearly 570 billion dollars, according to World Bank data. The project was previously proposed by former Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, and the three countries held two previous summits: the first in Cairo on 25 March 2019 with the participation of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, King Abdullah II bin al-Hussein, and (former) Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi; and the second on 22 September 2019, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) meeting in New York, and brought together the Egyptian President, the King of Jordan and the Iraqi President Barham Salih.

The recent summit, which was held in Amman on 25 August 2020, bore an indication of the seriousness of the three countries in advancing the alliance, through the establishment of a permanent secretariat for coordination on the tripartite cooperation files. The task of the secretariat would be to implement and follow up on what was agreed upon between the three countries, in an attempt to avoid the failure of previous Arab experiences whose protagonists failed to transfer them from the stage of statements and wishes into practical application. In the first year, the secretariat would be located in Amman. It would successively move each year between the capitals of the three countries.

The alliance focuses on complementary elements, namely oil, energy, transport, commodity trade and labour. An oil pipeline would be extended from Basra port in southern Iraq to the Aqaba port in Jordan and onward to Egypt. While Jordan would get Iraqi oil at a price lower than the international market price, in addition to the transit fees, Egypt would benefit from the process of refining part of the Iraqi oil on its territory. On the other hand, Iraq would import electricity from Egypt, and it could also benefit from Egyptian expertise in the reconstruction process. Jordan's potential in the field of transport would be tapped, considering its large capabilities in this field. Goods would also be exported from Jordan and Egypt to Iraq.

Project goals, timing, and contexts

A. Objectives

  • Benefitting from the economic and geographical advantages of the member states, and networking the economic interests in a manner that would benefit the economies of the member countries.
  • Transferring Iraq’s economic activity to the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, away from the Arabian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, which are under Iran's control. This would strengthen the Iraqi power cards against Iran.
  • Developing political and security coordination among member states in a manner that would serve the goals of each party.

B. Timing and context

The timing of putting forward the project has several implications:

  • It constitutes an attempt to penetrate the state of fragility in the Arab region that has made it an arena of conflict and competition for regional and international powers. The project may constitute the nucleus of a larger Arab grouping and benefit from Arab capacities to change the equations and weights in the region’s conflicts by contributing to the reproduction of Arab solidarity.
  • The project comes at the height of the sectarian divide in the region and the negative repercussions it has produced. The project would break the cycle of the Sunni-Shiite conflict that has characterized the outcomes of regional policies in the last decade, even as Middle Eastern societies are experiencing restlessness from sectarian conflicts in favour of searching for economic and political solutions to the crises experienced by the peoples of the region.
  • The launch of the project coincides with the increase in tension between the US and Iran, and an Arab openness to Israel represented by the UAE-Israeli agreement. These shifts would give the alliance additional political impetus by obtaining Arab-US support.

C. Regional overlaps of the project’s countries

The parties involved in this project have bilateral relations that conflict with one another's orientations and the political values ​​that govern their regional relations. Therefore, to what extent would this affect the alliance and the possibility of its development and survival? To what extent can its parties manage the network of old and new relations and maintain a balance in those relationships?

  • Iraq is linked by quasi-strategic relations to Iran. Those relations have grown considerably in light of the presence of a ruling political elite at both the legislative and executive levels, in addition to sprawling relations with the Iraqi parties and their military militias. On the other hand, the relations of Jordan and Egypt with Iran appear tepid, despite the existence of diplomatic representation between those parties.
  • While Egypt and Jordan have a peace agreement with Israel, some Iraqi quarters seek to link Iraq to the axis of "resistance" and consider themselves at war with Israel as a result of the targeting of their militias in Syria and the western regions of Iraq.
  • All parties have relations with the Saudi-UAE alliance ranging between alliance, as in the case of Egypt and Jordan, and coordination, as in the case of Iraq as a result of the existence of a UAE-Saudi approach that aims to include Iraq within the Arab framework and reduce Iranian hegemony over it.

The parties to the project are likely to seek to separate their alliance relations from the political complexities of the region. It is clear from the final communiqué that those parties are aware of the complexity of the network of relations in the region, specifically with regard to Iraq, whose Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi stressed the need to move away from the policies of the axes. This seemed to be a message to Iran that the alliance is not directed against it.

Challenges and opportunities before the project

The "New Levant" project is linked to the reality, circumstances and developments of the region. It will certainly be greatly affected by this reality. The political will of its parties will have an important role in facing challenges, even as they will have a role in maximizing its opportunities for development and leadership.

      A. Challenges

Despite the importance of the locations and roles of Egypt and Jordan in this project, the compass of the challenges is mainly directed towards Iraq. The success of the project is linked to Iraq’s ability to fulfill its obligations towards it. Despite the enthusiasm shown by Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi for the project in general, this does not hide the fact that there is an Iraqi division between supporters of the alliance with Iran and supporters of Iraq’s return to its Arab framework, with the scale tilting in favour of Iran's supporters. So, Kadhimi is likely to face a number of challenges, the most important of which are the following:

  • The possibility that Iraq would not be capable of obtaining Parliament’s ratification of the understandings reached at the Amman Summit between Iraq, Jordan and Egypt. Amer al-Fayez, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee in the Iraqi Parliament, who is a deputy from the pro-Iran Fatah Bloc led by Hadi al-Amiri, was quick to downplay the Amman Summit, saying that "no commitment can be made during the tripartite summit unless it is ratified" in Parliament.
  • Fear that the alliance would be interpreted as Iraq’s inclusion in the game of regional axes. While Kadhimi stressed in his meeting with the government, after his return from the tripartite summit, that Iraq should be kept away from the policy of the axes, asserting that the alliance focuses mainly on the economic side, it is not unlikely that Iran's supporters in Parliament and the partisan blocs would resort to activating this adherence to this principle in order to reject the alliance.
  • The tense relations between Kadhimi and the pro-Iran Iraqi militias, which accuse him of involvement in the assassination of the deputy chairman of the Popular Mobilisation Committee (PMC) Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, and the commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Qasem Soleimani, and which rejected the results of his US visit, may contribute to Iraq's failure to comply with the outcomes of the Amman Summit, considering its impact on Iran's interests in Iraq.
  • The most serious challenge facing the project lies in the efforts of some regional and international parties affected by the alliance to activate their tools in Iraq to obstruct the course of the project. This is not limited to Iran; Turkey would also view the alliance through the perspective of hostility with Egypt and refuse to give Egypt a foothold in Iraq; and Russia would deal with the alliance as a "US product."
  • The financial and economic crisis in the three countries, especially Iraq which is the main pillar of the project. This would reduce or delay joint investment plans or even the plan to extend the oil pipeline.

B. Chances of the success of the project

There are indications of the project's potential for success, as follows:

  • As the party to which the success of the alliance is linked, Iraq has the opportunity to get rid of Iranian hegemony, in light of the existence of a popular movement calling for reform and the removal of Iran's proxies from the circles of influence in government, even as Iran is going through difficult conditions as a result of the popular discontent and the challenges of the coronavirus epidemic. This provides Iraq with an opportunity to proceed towards getting rid of the reality of dependency imposed by Iran.
  • The existence of a clear US support for the project which forms part of the strategy to besiege Iran and dismantle its hegemony over Iraq. The US administration desires to turn Iraq towards Egypt and Jordan. The Trump administration has pressured Kadhimi during his recent visit to accelerate the project to connect the electricity grid to Egypt and Jordan.
  • The expectation that the project would receive an Arab support, especially by the Gulf states, given that the alliance constitutes an important tributary in strengthening the Arab position in the face of the penetration of regional powers, especially that Iraq and Jordan are geographically linked to the Gulf countries, and that fortifying the security of both countries is an important issue for the Gulf countries.
  • The existence of an Arab public opinion in support of the project, specifically in the three member states of the alliance. The expected benefits of the alliance, especially at the economic level, would also give the alliance the necessary momentum for development and survival.

Winners and losers from establishing the project

A. The winners

  • Members of the project (Egypt, Iraq and Jordan), in view of the expected returns on the alliance, and the need of the three parties for economic returns on the projects to be executed. Besides, the alliance would strengthen the cards of the three countries at both the political and security levels.
  • The US, which had a clear role in pushing for the birth of this alliance that would strengthen its cards in the face of the Russian and Chinese encroachment on the region. The alliance would also constitute an important blow to the Iranian project at its most important leg, namely Iraq.
  • The UAE and Saudi Arabia, considering that the Arab alliance between the three countries would reduce the areas of influence and dominance of regional competitors, namely Turkey and Iran, and strengthen the cards of the UAE and Saudi Arabia in the regional confrontation with those two parties.

B. The losers

  • Iran is at the forefront of the losers because the alliance brings Iraq directly closer to the Arab system and the attempt to find a new Arab bloc through which Iraq could be more effective within the Arab system. This would result in the withdrawal of one of the pillars of Iran’s strategic project in the Middle East and creating a big gap in its regional strategy. In addition, the alliance threatens Iran with losing the Iraqi market which is the only export outlet for Iran’s products. The volume of Iraqi exports from Iran is nearly 12 billion dollars, and the trade balance tilts in Iran’s favour by 100 percent. Therefore, Iran is unlikely to accept the loss of its influence in Iraq, and would suggest to its proxies there that the alliance is part of a Gulf-US conspiracy. It would use all methods to obstruct the alliance's paths, including destabilising Iraq.
  • Turkey does not want a strong Arab bloc, with a strong economy and army, as this would affect its direct interests. Turkey has important interests in Iraq where the trade volume between the two countries is more than 20 billion dollars. Iraq also exports part of its oil through the Turkish port of Ceyhan, and Turkey does not want Arab alternatives for Iraq. On the other hand, this alliance is in the interest of Turkey's Arab opponents, especially Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and strengthens their cards in the confrontation with Turkey.
  • Qatar: the alliance opposes the interests of Qatar which has become closely linked to Turkish interests in the region and seeks to weaken the Egyptian role and deprive its Gulf rivals, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, of any political and security gains.
  • Russia and China: Iraq has long been one of the traditional Russian centres of influence in the region. Russia has begun to extend its influence to Iraq in recent years, in preparation for a possible US exit from the region. As for China, Iraq is at the heart of its interests in the region, especially the Belt and Road project, in addition to its desire to obtain shares of the reconstruction of Iraqi cities and the infrastructure. The US presence in the nascent alliance, both in terms of its support or the proximity of its parties to US interests and policies in the region, constitutes a blow to Russian and Chinese schemes regarding Iraq.

Expected paths of the project

The project includes a geopolitical dimension that would change the existing regional balances and impose new equations contrary to the context followed by the region since the beginning of the current century which marks the beginning of the history of the collapse of the Arab system and the decline of its status and influence in the ongoing interactions in the region. The importance of the project is attributable to the following reasons:

  • Creating an Arab bloc capable of creating an objective balance in the region and fixing the imbalance in the balance of power in favour of the regional parties, namely Iran and Turkey, whose projects have come to threaten Arab security.
  • Restoring power to Arab geopolitics which possess important strategic advantages without being able to employ them in the context of competition and conflict with Turkey and Iran. Iraq ranks low in its relations with those two parties. Besides, the chaos caused by Turkey and Iran in Iraq finds its echo in the weak national security of the neighbouring Arab countries. However, the important question is: would the strategic dimension be activated in the Arab alliance? Does Egypt, which is the strongest party in the alliance, have the will and desire to pursue the alliance project to achieve the desired strategic returns?

It was remarkable that the final communiqué of the Amman tripartite summit did not mention the "New Levant". The communiqué focused on terms such as "coordination", "cooperation" and "integration". This raised the question of whether the parties have given up this project, or they have deliberately focused on the economic formula without conferring on the project political and security dimensions which the parties do not seem willing to pursue directly at this stage.

However, there are many indications of an Egyptian unwillingness to give the project a political dimension, limiting it to its economic dimensions because Egypt is not interested in counting on a specific party, and wants to manoeuvre between the various alliances and groupings. Moreover, Egypt's current matrix of preferences does not give importance to reviving the Arab Mashreq region and reshaping the regional balance of power, even as its focus is largely on the issues of the Renaissance Dam and the Libyan conflict. Thus, Egypt is currently interested in the economic returns that may accrue to it from Iraq.

Despite Jordan's enthusiasm for the project, in the context of its efforts to strengthen its strategic position which was affected by regional changes and whose effectiveness was reduced in the Syrian, Palestinian and Iraqi files, Jordan's problem lies in the first place with the US administration which has an interest in weakening its effectiveness in favour of the US peace project in the region.

Conclusion

The nature of the project’s paths depends on the political will of its parties, especially the capability of the Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi to accommodate the many obstacles that Iran will put in front of him. This requires radical internal changes at more than one level, the results of which may appear in the early Iraqi elections which was called for by Kadhimi in June 2021. The Egyptian role would also have an important impact on mobilising Arab countries behind the project and moving it from the field of limited economic benefits to the geopolitical side. This would change the power equations in the region, depending on the Egyptian orientations in the next phase.

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