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On 28 August 2021, Iraq hosted the first “Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership” with participation of eight regional countries, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, Qatar, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait and Jordan, besides France as a co-sponsor. While Egypt, Jordan, Qatar and France were represented by the heads of state, Kuwait and UAE sent their prime ministers. From Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran, their foreign ministers attended the event. The heads of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Arab League and Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) were also present at the Conference. The Baghdad Conference is significant for a variety of reasons including Iraq’s attempt to emerge as a regional mediator and reduce tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia on the one hand, and Turkey and Egypt–UAE, on the other. But at the core of it, the event was aimed at reviving Iraq’s economic and political fortunes.

The Conference is the brainchild of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi who took charge of Iraqi government in May 2020 after months of uncertainty over finding the successor to Adel Abdul-Mahdi who had resigned in November 2019 after a series of protests across Iraq against his government’s failure in checking corruption and in providing basic amenities like water and electricity. Kadhimi emerged as a consensus choice because of his reputation as a successful chief of Iraqi intelligence service, especially in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), and his good working relations with the three major external stakeholders—the  United States (US), Iran and Saudi Arabia. After assuming power, Kadhimi’s priority has been to revive the Iraqi economy and to undertake a more prominent regional role to reduce tensions among regional countries.

As part of effort to reduce tensions and promote regional cooperation, Iraq has reportedly organised several rounds of talks between Iranian and Saudi officials, besides hosting a tripartite summit attended by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, Jordanian King Abdullah-II and Iraqi President Barham Saleh in June 2021. The Baghdad Conference is a continuation of the same attempt as noted in the final communiqué issued after the meeting. Among the key issues discussed in the Conference were the conflict in Yemen, the situation in Lebanon and overcoming the economic disruptions caused by the COVID-19. The communiqué noted that the regional countries face “common challenges” and they need “to deal with them on the basis of joint cooperation and mutual interests”. It further highlighted the importance of economic reforms being undertaken by the Government of Iraq and emphasised the need for regional support for Iraq’s economic revival.

While the challenges facing Iraq and the causes of regional tensions are much deeper to expect any breakthrough, the fact that Iraq was able to bring together representatives from Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, Turkey and UAE on the same table is no mean achievement. Significantly, the organisers were not really aiming for any diplomatic breakthrough and were realistic in their objective as noted by Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein who underlined the need for initiating a dialogue rather than expecting any serious outcome. Notably, the Conference decided to form a follow-up committee comprising foreign ministers of participating countries who will explore the possibilities for further cooperation and “prepare for periodic future sessions, and discuss strategic economic and investment projects proposed by Iraq.”

Several factors contributed to Iraq’s success in organising the Conference and bringing the rival regional powers on the same platform. Firstly, the transition in Washington earlier this year has had a striking impact on the regional geopolitics. The Biden administration not only extended its support for the Conference but has been encouraging the Kadhimi government to bring reforms and end the endemic corruption in Iraq. Secondly, the ongoing reorientation in US foreign policy has created a regional environment for the regional countries to amend their foreign policy behaviour to avoid security threats emanating from regional rivalries and tensions. One of the first instances of the change in the behaviour of regional countries came with the signing of the Al-Ula Declaration to end the boycott of Qatar by Saudi Arabia and its regional allies—Bahrain, Egypt and UAE ending the nearly four-year GCC crisis. The kingdom also attempted to end the Yemen conflict by declaring a unilateral ceasefire in March. Similarly, there have been attempts by the UAE, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran to engage each other given that the Biden administration, unlike its predecessor, is not keen to get involved in the cantankerous regional politics.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the Baghdad Conference is a result of Kadhimi government’s three-pronged strategy to revive Iraq’s fortune. Prime Minister Kadhimi knows that without the support of the neighbouring countries, Iraq cannot overcome the economic, political and security challenges it is facing. He also understands that playing a mediatory role serves the purpose of striking a balance in relations with rival regional powers, and at the same time, generate the goodwill and confidence among international investors and major global powers. In terms of domestic politics, the successful conduct of the Conference can be showcased as an achievement for the government approaching an election, and at the same time, it can pave the ground for reviving regional trade and investments in Iraq, significant for the much-needed economic recovery.

From an Indian perspective, it is important to keep an eye on the developments in Iraq, not only because of Baghdad’s attempts to emerge as a regional mediator but also because of the significance of Iraq as India’s energy partner and the economic opportunities that it offers in terms of bilateral trade and investments. Besides, the Baghdad Conference was noteworthy from the regional diplomacy viewpoint and the fact that France was a co-organiser of the Conference underlines the scope for international diplomacy. Given India’s interests and diplomatic capital in West Asia, it posits an opportunity for New Delhi to partner with the like-minded international powers to engage the regional countries.

The Baghdad Conference is a significant development so far as Iraq’s future is concerned. The country debilitated by war, insurgency and terrorism during the past two decades needs extraordinary initiatives to revive its fortunes. It is still early days to predict if the Conference will lead to a tangible outcome but the initial response it has garnered within Iraq and from the regional and international community confirms that an opportunity lies therein.

Note:  This article was originally published in Iraqi Economist Network on 6 October 2021 and has been reproduced with the permission of the author. Web Link

As part of its editorial policy, the MEI@ND standardizes spelling and date formats to make the text uniformly accessible and stylistically consistent. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views/positions of the MEI@ND. Editor, MEI@ND: P R Kumaraswamy