Underlining the commitment of their countries to further deepening relations, the leaders of Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan met this week for the first time in Baghdad amid efforts to transform Iraq into a stable and functioning country.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, Jordanian King Abdullah, and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi noted that the one-day summit on Sunday had succeeded in establishing a framework for stronger tripartite cooperation.
In a final declaration, the three leaders said their countries were committed to using all resources at their disposal to establish “strategic relationships” that would lay down concrete steps for long-term cooperation.
A statement released after the summit set out a series of measures intended to achieve this goal, including “boosting economic and vital” ties, “achieving resources integration”, and “doubling trade exchange”.
The three leaders also pledged to reinforce coordination between their “security and intelligence” apparatuses in countering terrorism and cyber security and denying “safe havens and media platforms” to hostile elements.
The summit was originally slated for March but was rescheduled twice following a train accident in Egypt that killed 19 people and after reports of royal palace turmoil in Jordan.
For months, the three countries have been trying to hammer out a long list of cooperation agreements in the fields of energy, health, construction, reconstruction, agriculture, pharmaceuticals, and food.
Al-Sisi, Abdullah and Al-Kadhimi laid special emphasis on ambitious plans to build a power grid, a gas network, an oil pipeline, and a land route that would connect their three countries and facilitate their integration.
Through the proposed three-way partnership, both Egypt and Jordan hope to translate their newly revamped relations with Iraq into concrete plans and institutions, probably through an economic grouping between the three countries, which have a combined GDP of nearly $570 billion.
Egypt and Jordan are already key trade partners with Iraq, although they rank lower than Iran and Turkey, which have the lion’s share of Iraq’s huge imports totaling more than $40 billion annually.
Egyptian exports to Iraq amount to nearly $600 million a year, with sales including foodstuffs, textiles, pharmaceuticals, ceramics, and appliances. Many Egyptian exports to Iraq are exempted from levies under old bilateral agreements.
Jordan’s annual exports to Iraq have hit some $400 million, and the kingdom receives preferential treatment, with nearly 400 Jordanian commodities exempted from customs duties by Iraq.
Both Egypt and Jordan also receive cheap Iraqi oil, and on Sunday the three leaders said efforts would be doubled to build a 1,700km oil pipeline linking Basra to Aqaba on the Red Sea.
The scheme, proposed in 2014, had an initial capacity of 150,000 barrels per day at a cost of $18 billion. It is expected to be expanded to include a link to Egypt.
With oil prices set to head higher and Iraq expected to embark on a reconstruction programme, Egypt and Jordan are eyeing Iraq’s economic potential and seeking to expand business with Iraq.
Cairo has already proposed an oil-for-reconstruction pact with Baghdad, under which Egyptian companies will be able to participate in building projects in Iraq in return for oil.
The summit put the reconstruction of Iraq at the centre of the three countries’ ambitious integration plans, with Egypt primarily hoping to find a strong foothold in Iraq’s reconstruction programme.
Cairo also hopes to implement 15 previous agreements varying between housing, construction, transportation, water resources, mining, and irrigation.
Only a few days before the summit, Iraq unveiled plans for a huge residential project in Baghdad, which it hopes will lure foreign investment and labour.
Iraq’s National Investment Commission (NIC) has announced plans to build the “integrated housing and service facilities” on a 400 square km area near Baghdad’s international airport.
The NIC did not give an estimated cost for the proposed Al-Rafeel City but said it would accommodate some one million people and also provide more than 100,000 jobs.
The Iraqi cabinet gave final approval to the project on 24 June.
Reports in the business media in the region have suggested that Iraq might be able to borrow from international financial institutions for the building projects under consideration.
From the political perspective, the tripartite summit could carry a greater meaning in demonstrating Arab support for Iraq and in particular for Al-Kadhimi, whose efforts to ensure stability in Iraq face roadblocks at home and abroad.
The summit allowed Al-Kadhimi to present himself at home as a major player on the regional stage and provided him with valuable new opportunities to bolster his stature as a strong leader.
Jordan’s King Abdullah told journalists last week that he plans to ask US President Joe Biden during an upcoming visit to Washington to lend his support to Al-Kadhimi and his government.
The Jordanian monarch was quoted as saying that he will urge the Biden administration to help Iraq be “fully rehabilitated and reintegrated in the region”.
It is not clear if King Abdullah has any specific plans for bringing Iraq back into the Arab fold, but Al-Kadhimi has indicated that his efforts to revamp ties with Egypt and Jordan could be turned into a concrete alliance.
The US welcomed the “historic visit” of Al-Sisi and Abdullah to Iraq and described it as an important “contribution to strengthening regional stability”.
Al-Kadhimi suggested earlier that he would propose plans for a “New Levant” to the Baghdad summit, a project based on linking Iraq’s oil potential with Egypt’s and Jordan’s population and economic advantages.
The summit’s final declaration made no mention of whether the leaders had discussed the idea, but in an article in the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper on Sunday, Al-Kadhimi called for closer Arab coordination.
“It is high time to declare loud and clear that we the Arab people deserve to recall our common bonds and origins to support each other and to rise up to confront the challenges of tomorrow,” Al-Kadhimi wrote.
Going forward, one of the key uncertainties over warmer Egyptian and Jordanian relations with Iraq is the way in which Iran will look at a larger Arab alliance that includes Iraq.
This underlines once again Iran’s increasing influence in Iraq, which peaked after pro-Iran militias and political groups consolidated their power in the country in recent years.
Iran now tops Iraq’s trade partners, with exports that amount to $12 billion and plans to boost future bilateral trade to $20 billion in order to keep the Iraqi market a major destination for Iranian goods and to keep Iraq itself under Iranian control.
While the Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq grouping could be a linchpin for a larger regional Arab economic alliance, Iran is expected to do its best to torpedo Iraq’s rejoining the Arab framework and its return as a regional power.
Just a few days before the Baghdad summit, Iran’s newly elected president Ebrahim Raisi sent an invitation to Al-Kadhimi to visit Tehran as soon as he takes office in August.
A hardliner who is known to be trusted by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and closely aligned with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Raisi is likely to increase the pressure on Al-Kadhimi to slow down the rapprochement with the Arabs.
Many Iraqis also fear that Iran’s proxies in Iraq will resort to using their power base, including their factions in the government and parliament, to block the new Arab alliance or even stronger Arab ties with Iraq.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly