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Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan seek to develop a regional bloc in the geographical center of the Arab world. But all three countries are poor and dependent in for economic largesse on more wealthy partners, so their regional aspirations and strategies will necessarily be limited.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, Jordanian King Abdullah and Iraqi PM Mustafa al-Kadhimi in Amman, Aug. 25, 2020 | File photo: AFP/Yousef Allan
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi held a summit meeting with King Abdallah II of Jordan in Amman on August 25. This was eleven days after US President Donald Trump announced the normalization of relations between the United Arab Emirates and Israel. It was also less than a week after Kadhimi's maiden visit to Washington to meet President Trump, (Kadhimi assumed office in May).
This trilateral meeting was the third such since March 2019 (with a different Iraqi representative each time). As part of their desire to institutionalize the trilateral alignment, the leaders in Amman established an executive secretariat with an annually rotating headquarters, starting this year at Jordan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The summit covered the gamut of regional and trilateral affairs, with economic and infrastructure issues seemingly preponderant. In their joint communiqué, the three leaders stressed the need to translate the strong ties between the three countries into "coordination, cooperation and strategic integration", especially on "vital issues" such as electricity connectivity, energy, joint economic zones, health care, food security, trade, and encouraging investment.
On political issues, the three countries stressed their support for an independent, sovereign Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital, and the need to stop Israeli steps towards annexation and alteration of the "historical and legal status quo in Jerusalem."
They also underlined the need to increase efforts to achieve political solutions for the crises in the region, especially in Libya, Syria, and Yemen; and discussed Ethiopia's Grand Renaissance Dam project and the threat to the water security and rights of Egypt and Sudan, which they defined as "an integral part of Arab national security"; spoke of fostering political and security cooperation, and the importance of combined efforts to face challenges to stability and security in the region, especially "foreign interventions aimed at destabilizing Arab security" and "foreign interference in Arab internal affairs". Turkey's role in North Africa and Syria was apparently a major issue of discussion.
The alternative regional strategic alignmentApart from the overriding economic rationale for the cooperation – which does, as will be explained below, have significant potential, especially regarding infrastructure – the alignment has a clear strategic rationale. The three countries are seeking to develop a regional bloc, to allow them to influence and support outside their sub-regions; to afford them more weight in the regional and international arena; and to collaborate on countering the influence and actions of Turkey and Iran.
This axis would span the center of the Arab world, as opposed to Iran, Turkey and the Gulf States, which are on its geographic margins: Kadhimi speaks of the vision of a Europe-like "new Levant" (bilad a-Sham jedid), with freer flows of capital and technology. Some Arab observers liken the new alignment to the abortive Arab Cooperation Council of 1989-1990, formed by the same three countries and North Yemen (with the Jordanians as main architect) as a counterweight to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), but which collapsed due to divisions between them regarding Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.
A key purpose of the summit and the cooperation is the desire of the two historically most important Arab states, and their mutual ally, to display vitality and continued relevance in regional issues. The strategic agenda and leadership of the Arab world has been concentrated – unnaturally, in their view – for much of the past decade in the hands of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, while Egypt, Iraq and Jordan have been roiled by internal or sub-regional issues. Despite the fact that all three countries have close ties to the United States, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have to a large extent become and remained the preferred interlocutors for the Trump and Netanyahu administrations on issues regarding the region's strategic architecture.
Cairo and Amman have been marginalized on these issues. (Iraq was sidelined long before, by its own disintegration and reconstruction). Each of these states is interested in resuscitating intra-Arab diplomacy outside of the Saudi/Emirati channel.
Apart from the shared goals related to the regional political and strategic dynamics, each of the three parties has its own interests and objectives in the cooperation.
Egypt has in the past two years become more vocal and more prominent in the Western Middle East, as Sisi cemented his domestic political position (his perch at Egypt's pinnacle has been assured through the next decade through constitutional changes), and as crises proliferated in its near neighborhood – in Sudan, Libya and Algeria, as well as, on and off, in Gaza. In addition, broader Egyptian interests have been engaged by the flare-up of maritime boundary conflicts in the Eastern Mediterranean, which could impinge on Egypt's future as a gas producer, gas exporter and hub. These put Egypt in direct confrontation with Turkey, already despised by the Sisi regime as the bolt hole of its Muslim Brotherhood enemies. Action by Ethiopia to operationalize the Grand Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile and fill its reservoirs, have raised another geostrategic challenge in its near neighborhood.
Egypt was in economic hardship before the COVID pandemic, which only exacerbated its economic challenges. It is very interested in getting a share of the Iraqi reconstruction effort, and stresses its construction industry's experience at implementing infrastructure and housing mega-projects, both at home and in African and Arab countries. It is also, as discussed above, interested in diminishing the Saudi-Emirati near-hegemony in Arab affairs, and regaining what it sees as its rightful place in the inter-Arab arena.
Iraq under Kadhimi is looking to return to the Arab world and to expand and diversify its diplomatic, economic, infrastructure and energy ties. This is part of the new Prime Minister's bid to reach out to potential allies in an attempt to loosen Iran's grip on Iraqi politics, and to afford Iraq a broader regional role and identity.
Kadhimi recently told his cabinet that "Getting Iraq away from the policy of axes is the approach that the current government is following, and it is in the interest of our people … Balance, moderation, and reliance on strengthening cooperation, especially in economic relations to ensure the interest of Iraq, is what we seek in our relations with countries." This position has reportedly raised concerns among Iran's allies in Iraq, who still hold most of the levers of power. Iraq is also interested in developing trade relations in the region and in the reconstruction and expansion of its infrastructure, with special attention being afforded to the electricity sector, shortages in which led to significant unrest over the past two years
Jordan has good relations with both of its senior partners. Despite being the weakest of the three, it is to a large degree the lynchpin of the alignment: by dint of its geographical position, it is essential for trade, energy and infrastructure cooperation between Egypt and Iraq. It could enable re-establishment of a channel for trade through Sinai (including Nuweiba port) and Aqaba to Iraq, as well as the integration of the three countries' electrical networks. Amman seeks for its part to free stalled agreements with Iraq, such as the activation of a joint industrial zone on the Jordanian-Iraqi border (which has been delayed by Iraqi foot-dragging); and the establishment of an Iraqi oil export pipeline from Basra to Aqaba.
This pipeline would both provide Jordan with a stable supply of oil (it today receives ten thousand barrels of oil a day from Iraq by truck, at preferential prices, which covers 7% of Jordan's energy needs) and transit fees, and may be extended into Sinai. Such a pipeline, allowing Iraq to deliver its oil to the Mediterranean market, and the interconnection of the countries' electrical networks, would significantly progress Egypt's goal of becoming a regional energy hub. Jordan also sees opportunities in the financial and service sectors in Iraq, especially with the recent decline of Lebanon in this sphere.
All these could be a boon to Jordan's faltering economy, as well as alleviate the feeling of isolation and neglect Jordan has felt since the Trump and Netanyahu administrations began their intense partnership with the Gulf powers. The tripartite summit also emphasized the importance of the historical role of the Hashemite guardianship in protecting the Temple Mount and holy sites in Jerusalem "and their Arab and Islamic identity." This issue is important for Jordan, as the agreement between UAE and Israel seems to obfuscate the special role of Jordan in Jerusalem.
Relevance for Israel, and looking forwardThe recent normalization agreement between UAE and Israel (the "Abraham Accord") seems to have taken Cairo and Amman by surprise. The agreement – and the anticipated business ties, scientific collaboration, tourism and "people-to-people" exchange, and academic cooperation expected to rapidly follow – raised immediate, and unflattering, comparisons with the old, "cold peace" agreements which exist between Egypt and Jordan and Israel (Bahrain's jumping on the bandwagon has only sharpened the dichotomy). It also threatens to displace them, especially Egypt, from their longtime role as the main Arab interlocutor with Israel. Also troubling to them is the fact that they cannot compete with the Gulf states on normalization initiatives because the latter have much more money, and much more positive – or at least less resistant and less significant – domestic opinion regarding Israel.
It seems possible that Cairo and Amman are also concerned about the sidelining of the Palestinian issue, partially because unlike the Gulf States, they would be directly impacted, as they were twice before, by an outbreak of violence attendant on Palestinian frustrations. They, therefore, seek to create an axis which, while still pro-American and committed to peace with Israel, retains the Palestinian issue, at least overtly, in its traditional place at the center of Arab policy towards Israel.
What are the chances that the Cairo-Amman-Baghdad axis will become a significant player in the region? It is difficult to say. Egypt has been continually increasing its activity and influence in the Middle East, and especially in North African and Mediterranean, issues in the past two years. While it still functions on most issues in tandem with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, it does not do so on all (Iran, Yemen), and on some significant issues (Libya, Eastern Mediterranean and Gaza), it is in the lead. Jordan, as usual, is in the thick of developments and threatened, but has little power, apart from its diplomatic ability to "tie ends together".
Iraq has farther to go to return to regional significance (the Eastern Med, Libyan and Palestinian issues, for instance, seem very far away from Baghdad), and is still largely held in place by pro-Iranian elements within its leadership and especially its security forces. It is, however, quite interested in restoring relations with its Arab brethren, and the Egyptian-Jordanian option may see more achievable at this stage, in terms of domestic "digestibility", than the Saudi-GCC one.
The trilateral combination may enable them more leverage and "strategic depth" vis-à-vis extra-regional powers and the Gulf States. However, in the end all three countries are poor (despite Iraq's oil resources) and dependent in for economic largesse on more wealthy partners. None of them has the potential to be the banker of the others, and therefore, their regional aspirations and strategies will be limited by their need to adapt their ways and ends to their means.
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