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
B. Timing and context
The timing of putting forward the project has several implications:
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?
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.
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:
B. Chances of the success of the project
There are indications of the project's potential for success, as follows:
Winners and losers from establishing the project
A. The winners
B. The losers
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:
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.
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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