Qatar has moved to reset its relations with Iraq after years of strain with Baghdad’s Shia-led government over the Gulf emirate’s support for the country’s Sunni community following the fall of the regime of former dictator Saddam Hussein.
Qatar’s plans were highlighted by a rare visit to Baghdad last week by its Foreign Minister Mohamed bin Abdul-Rahman Al-Thani, who declared his country’s preparedness to “open all horizons of cooperation and maintain historic relations with the Iraqi government and people.”
However, Qatar’s new overture towards Iraq may indicate a larger scheme by the tiny Gulf emirate to forge a regional axis designed to counter plans to set up a US-led security alliance with Qatar’s regional rivals to contain Iranian power in the Middle East.
The Trump administration has announced plans to form a Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA) to bind Sunni Muslim governments in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, Egypt and Jordan together in a US-led security, political and economic pact.
Qatar, meanwhile, has showed signs that it will not buy into the US-Saudi strategy to confront Iran. The rift with its Gulf neighbours is pushing the wealthy emirate to seek new allies and friends to confront the challenge.
Al-Thani’s visit came on the heels of the formation of a new Iraqi government following the 12 May elections in the country and Doha’s hopes to open a new chapter in relations with Baghdad.
Al-Thani held talks with top Iraqi leaders including Kurdish President Barham Salih, Shia Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi and Sunni Speaker of Parliament Mohamed Al-Halbousi.
Interestingly, Al-Thani also met with Hadi Al-Amiri, leader of one of the most powerful Iran-backed Shia militias in Iraq.
Iraqi officials later said they had urged Qatar to contribute to efforts to help in the reconstruction of areas devastated by the war on the Islamic State (IS) terror group.
The Iraqi officials also called on the energy-rich Gulf state to strengthen its ties with Iraq by pumping in investment that would help the country to reconstruct its ailing economy.
Simultaneously, a Qatar-based cultural foundation conferred an award of distinction on renowned Iraqi singer Elias Khudher last week. It also celebrated cultural evenings with music and poetry recitations in honour of a group of Iraqi artists.
Uncertainty has hung over relations between Iraq and Qatar since Shia political groups came to power in Iraq in 2003 following the fall of Saddam’s Sunni-dominated regime. Qatar has angered many Iraqis for being close to Sunni Arab rebel groups in the country.
For years Qatar refused to send an ambassador to Baghdad and instead encouraged fellow members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to take a similar confrontational approach.
Its freewheeling TV network Aljazeera also angered Iraqi Shias by providing ample airtime in support of Iraqi Sunnis and claims by community leaders of mistreatment by their co-religionists.
Qatar’s former foreign minister and current Defence Minister Khaled bin Mohamed Al-Attiyah even once described former Iraqi Shia prime minister Nouri Al-Maliki as “little more than an Iranian stooge.”
In summer 2014 after IS militants seized large swathes of territory in Iraq, Qatar laid the blame for the advance squarely on the Shia government in Baghdad.
Iraqi Shia officials then accused Qatar of aiding Sunni extremists such as IS militants and promoting plans to split Iraq along sectarian lines.
The major factor behind Doha’s sudden change of heart towards Iraq and its attempts to flirt with the Iraqi Shia leadership seems to be the Saudi Arabia-led drive to isolate Qatar, a move the latter views in near-existential terms.
Iraq has been neutral in the crisis after Saudi Arabia and other Arab states severed diplomatic, trade and travel ties with Qatar last year, accusing it of supporting Islamist fundamentalists and financing terrorism.
Given the gathering pace of history in the Middle East, the cold war between the other Gulf nations and Qatar has made political judgements in Iraq more, not less, important.
Iraqi officials have remained tight-lipped on reports that Al-Thani has proposed an alliance with Qatar. However, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) of Iran reported that Qatar had proposed to form a new pact with four regional countries comprising Qatar, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey.
However, Qatar has not yet sorted out how to go about implementing its new approach towards Iraq. At first glance, Doha seems to seek to deepen its relations with Iran and Iraq to counter-balance pressure from Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab countries that took action against the emirate last year.
Yet, the prospects for success seem low given the security and political factors and the track record of previous Qatari initiatives. Such an alliance could certainly harden Arab divisions and shake up the Middle East geopolitical landscape.
It would also challenge the Saudi-led GCC and key partners such as Egypt and Jordan and invite a response from regional and world powers.
The first casualty for the alliance would likely be US President Donald Trump’s strategy to contain Iranian power in the Middle East by forging Arab allies into a US-backed security alliance.
The Trump administration has been grappling with ways to overcome regional feuds and push the new alliance forward in order to contain Iran as well as to limit Chinese and Russian influence in the region. An alliance of the type now suggested by Qatar would certainly kill the the idea of a US-led pact.
There are many questions involved in the debate over how to implement the new Qatari strategy and whether an alliance with Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey would be sustainable after the crisis between Qatar and the GCC and Egypt.
Despite recent advances in Turkish-Qatari relations, including establishing a Turkish military base in Qatar against the backdrop of the unfolding Gulf crisis, it is hard to believe that Ankara, a NATO member, will go as far as to join a new regional alliance.
Another factor that makes the prospects of success of this project seem low is Syria, which has no diplomatic relations with Doha or Ankara.
Syria is expected to enter into outright rivalry with Turkey in the Syrian Civil War and in its efforts to take back territories under Turkish military control.
Iran has thus far signalled that it would welcome any further divisions in the Gulf nations’ ranks and would support the new alliance in order to offset the US-Saudi strategy to contain and isolate the Islamic Republic.
As for Iraq, there are limits to its security and geopolitical strategies that draw largely on its capabilities to adopt a more pragmatic and balanced attitude towards its powerful neighbours and its security partners such as the NATO and the United States.
Baghdad will likely maintain its military relations with the United States in order to counter-balance pressure from Iran. Qatar’s attempts to lure Iraq into a new axis that could chafe at the US-led anti-IS coalition will likely thus not pay off.
Siding with Qatar would also jeopardise Baghdad’s relations with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab countries that have taken action against Qatar.
Saudi Arabia has improved its ties with Iraq after a quarter century of estrangement. In 2015, Saudi Arabia re-opened diplomatic relations with Iraq, and it has set about forging new political, economic and social ties.
Iraq also hopes that the oil-rich kingdom will play a leading role in rebuilding its war-torn towns and cities, while also hoping to bolster its credentials across the region.
With soft power bought by billions of dollars and propelled by intrigue diplomacy and a vast media empire, Qatar will continue to push for grandiose objectives and jockey for power and position with regional heavyweights.
Nonetheless, Doha’s venture in Iraq has its limits, and these will ultimately determine whether Iraq and Qatar can grow closer into a hotchpotch alliance.
Qatar will rely on Iranian influence over Baghdad to promote its agenda, but even this has its limitations that go beyond Tehran’s clout in Baghdad to the traditional geopolitical role of Iraq as a balancing regional power.
Joining a new alliance with Qatar carries a risk for Iraq, both inside and outside the country. Iraqi officials must realise the potential dangers of shifting closer to an alliance that would pitch Iraq into the orbit of regional powers.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Qatar eyes a fresh start with Iraq