Shifting Sands: Is the New Arab Alliance Too Good to be True?

Written by | Monday, May 10th, 2021

Alliances in the Middle East come and go, often shaped and determined by regional competition and international intervention. The past few years have seen the normalization of relations between the United Arab Emirates and Israel, the reconciliation between the GCC states following a four-year rift, and the once-strong Saudi-UAE partnership, built on close ties between crown princes Mohammed bin Zayed and Mohammed bin Salman, come under pressure.

An emerging regional alliance worth watching is that of Jordan, Egypt and Iraq, which brings together the region’s ‘odd fellows’. Egypt has lost its place as the region’s so-called centre of gravity, Jordan was sidelined during the Trump era and has since, arguably, lost its unique selling point as an interlocutor for peace to the UAE and Bahrain, while Iraq left the Arab fold long ago. On paper, it does not look like a very convincing alliance either and few policy wonks and analysts have given it any consideration. However, three key features should make this an effective and durable alliance, and one which holds promise for regional and international partners.

First, there is real political will behind it. Egypt’s President Abdelfattah Al Sisi, Jordan’s King Abdullah and successive Iraqi prime ministers Adel Abdul Mahdi and Mustafa Al Kadhimi have all invested time and energy in establishing the alliance. In a region where initiatives come and go, it looks as though their common and complementary interests will help drive the partnership forward. Foreign ministers from these three countries, alongside their intelligence counterparts, met in Baghdad on 29 March and signalled the continued growth of the relationship based on security, counterterrorism, energy security, industrial integration, trade and reconstruction.

Second, the alliance brings together three nearly contiguous states that between them have considerable energy resources (Iraq), human capital (Jordan), market opportunities, portable construction labourers and significant military capabilities (Egypt). While they do not possess the wealth of their Gulf Arab neighbours, they have a combined population of 150 million people, indigenous industrial capacity and strong agricultural traditions. If they are able to capitalize on their complementarities, it could be a formidable alliance. For example, Jordanian and Egyptian human capital could support Iraq’s reconstruction efforts, Jordan could serve as a transit point for Iraqi natural gas to Aqaba and Egypt’s LNG network, and Egyptian refineries could process Basra Light and other oil grades for domestic consumption and export.

Third, while economic development, security and counterterrorism are presented as the key drivers of the alliance, there can be no doubt that it should also offer Jordan and Egypt fresh political leverage – both regionally and internationally – and provide Iraq’s prime minister and his allies with valuable new partners west of Baghdad.

Jordan has lost some of its currency with the Gulf Arab states – especially since the UAE and Bahrain normalized relations with Israel – and its importance as a strategic partner to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also diminished over time. Therefore, stronger relations with Egypt and Iraq serves as a hedge against waning support from the UAE and increasing Israeli hostility on the one hand, while on the other it helps Amman position itself favourably with Riyadh, which is itself looking to grow its relationship with Baghdad but faces many hurdles in doing so. In other words, this alliance has the potential to draw Jordan and Saudi Arabia closer together.

Egypt is eager to regain its position as the leading Arab state and allying itself with Jordan and Iraq – in theory, at least – allows it to place itself at the centre of a new Arab alliance. Importantly for Egypt, it is not an alliance purchased by oil money, but one based on the nuts and bolts of old-fashioned diplomacy where it can draw on its long experience to help forge the relationship. By doing so, it’s not only decreasing its economic dependence on the Gulf Arab states but also setting in motion a process of bringing Iraq back into the Arab fold, something Saudi Arabia, in particular, and others have longed for.

In this sense, the tripartite alliance has a clear political goal and that is to counter Iranian influence in Iraq. Not through direct or indirect military means, supporting proxies or even carrying out covert operations, but by strengthening economic ties, encouraging population exchanges, increasing security and counterterrorism cooperation and tying the three countries together through extensive and expansive energy infrastructure. It is easy to see why Western governments and Arab leaders would welcome such an alliance, it looks almost too good to be true – and that is probably because it is. While Iraq’s leadership may well want to deepen ties with Jordan and Egypt – more with the latter than the former – Iran is hardly going to look the other way and let Amman and Cairo steal Baghdad away.

‚Is the New Arab Alliance Too Good to be True?‘ – Expert Comment by Neil Quilliam – Chatham House / The Royal Institute of International Affairs.

The Expert Comment can be downloaded here

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