The GCC states and the Situation in Iraq

Posted in Broader Middle East , Iraq | 10-Jul-08 | Author: Abdulaziz Sager| Source: Gulf Research Center

Given that the GCC states are strategically and historically connected to Iraq due to its geographic location, tribal ties, shared religion and language, Arab Gulf decision-makers naturally keep a close eye on the political and security situation in Iraq. There can be no doubt that developments there have direct consequences for the region as a whole.

Overall, the six GCC states share land boundaries with Arab countries such as Iraq and Jordan, which in the past have acted as buffer states against some major sources of threat. For example, Jordan has been a strong shield against Israeli threats while Iraq was in the frontline against attempts by Iran to spread its hegemony over the region. Given this role, the Gulf States have at times used their financial resources to consolidate the security and military capabilities of these two states.

Iraq in particular has served as a significant strategic actor as far as the GCC states are concerned. In view of its cultural, human, military and financial capabilities, Iraq's role in maintaining the balance of power in the region has been important especially as it has managed to contain Iranian ambitions and the challenges posed by Persian nationalism and Shiite Islam. In the early 1940s, Iraq emerged as a regional power both politically and militarily and for the coming decades it would serve as the main Arab competitor to Persian Iran. By the early 1970s, Ba'ath-ruled Iraq engaged in an open conflict with Iran which was at the time under the rule of Shah. That conflict escalated into a major war between the two countries after the Iranian Islamic Revolution brought a Shiite government to power in Iran, a war that lasted for eight years and only ended with a ceasefire agreement in 1988.

The fact that Iraq denied Iran a military victory proved valuable to the GCC states as it hampered the export of Iranian ideology and its expansionist policies. Iran has long attempted to foster the Shiite affiliation of the Iraqi people against their Arab national identity in order to gain ground in the Arab-Persian conflict. Tehran, for example, established and supported an opposition movement based on sectarian representation and one that was empathetic to the Iranian national policies. The relationship between the Shiite religious schools in both countries was also close. The GCC states, mainly those with large Shiite communities, thus have been uneasy about Iranian policies towards Iraq, a view which contributed to their support for the Iraqi state.

In order to help keep the balance of power in the region, the necessity to maintain a strong and integral Iraq, one supported by political and geographical unity, economic growth, deterrent military power, a strong central government and eventually, a leading, but not necessarily exclusive, role for Sunnis in managing the state and decision-making, became clear. This necessity did not change after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait despite the fact that the GCC's strategic calculations underwent a sea change.

It was only following the US occupation of Iraq in 2003 and the deliberate dismantling of the security and military infrastructure of the state that Iraq's role as a buffer state faded away. This situation has impacted the Gulf States in two ways: First, the removal of Iraq put the GCC, and Iraq's neighbors, in the frontline. Second, Iran's influence in Iraq rapidly increased and Tehran was able to gain strategic benefits by capitalizing on the military and political deterioration of Iraq. Iran in fact seized this unprecedented opportunity to spread its hegemony over Iraq.

The attitude of Saudi Arabia and other GCC states towards the situation in Iraq can be characterized as follows. First, the GCC states are aware of the grave US mistakes in Iraq. The US invasion of Iraq was politically unjustified and the Saudi King himself described the US occupation of Iraq as "illegitimate." At the same time, one needs to underline that the GCC leadership was not involved in the decision-making process leading up to the invasion. Rather, the decisions were made unilaterally by the US without prior consultations with most countries in the region.

Second, the US authorities issued a number of decisions and regulations which served to break up the Iraqi state and paralyze its key establishments. This included the dismantling of the Iraqi armed forces and the dissolution of the Ba'ath party, both of which proved critical is setting off the current political and security crisis. These decisions were again made unilaterally without referring to regional players such as the GCC.

Third, the US brought some exiled opposition leaders to power, a decision that has shown to be politically inept and short-sighted. These figures had been notorious for their extreme sectarian and racial attitudes, moral and financial corruption, lack of a sense of national belonging, and more importantly, for being minions of some foreign players. This decision again contributed to the current crisis in Iraq. As part of the GCC, Saudi Arabia, cognizant of the fact that these political figures were not qualified to lead post-Saddam Iraq, has from the outset followed a clear-cut approach by refusing to deal with most of the Iraqi opposition leaders in exile. Generally speaking, Saudi Arabia still believes that the elements currently ruling Iraq do not serve the highest national interest of Iraq.

Determinants of the GCC's Attitude

Based on its rational strategy and its conviction that the catastrophic situation in Iraq is a direct outcome of the grave US mistakes, the GCC states have during the past five years continuously expressed their deep concern about the situation in Iraq. As the repercussions of mishandling the Iraqi issue cannot be ignored, GCC policy has focused mainly on preventing a further deterioration and limiting the negative consequences as much as possible. This policy has three core dimensions:

First, the GCC states are deeply interested in the future of Iraq as a state and people. The two sides have much in common, such as religion, nationalism and history. There is a real feeling of sympathy for the Iraqi people along with concern about the human and social ramifications of the crisis. Second, the spillover effect of the crisis could have a bearing on domestic and regional security in the long run and impact the regional balance of power. Third, the deteriorating situation in Iraq may pose a serious threat to Arab security.

As a result, the GCC see Iraq as a source of multiple threats. Key among these is the growing Iranian influence where Iran has from the outset sought to reinforce its presence in Iraq by establishing connections with pro-Tehran figures, political parties and armed militias. From a Arab Gulf point of view, the consolidation of Iranian hegemony over Iraq, which means a new Iraq submissive to Iran's strategic and national interests, the acceptance of Iran's crucial role in the security of Iraq as underlined by the US decision to hold direct, bilateral negotiations with Iran concerning the situation in Iraq, and, finally, the possibility that the next US administration may strike a deal with Tehran to get out of the quagmire in which American forces in Iraq find themselves, which in turn would allow Iran a free hand in Iraq and the region in general, all serve to undermines the regional balance and harmony. Such an interventionist policy does not serve the interests of the Iraqi state, in fact it further aims to inflame internal conflicts also in Lebanon, Palestine, and probably Yemen, for Tehran's own interest.

The GCC states, meanwhile and despite increasing pressure at various levels - internal, Arab, Muslim and even from some Iraqi groups - to intervene in Iraq, have focused their attention on humanitarian and financial aid and engaging in diplomatic endeavors in a bid to achieve Iraqi national reconciliation.

The crisis situation in Iraq is also behind the escalating terrorist activities inside and outside the country. Saudi Arabia, among other GCC states, is one of the countries that has suffered the impact of terrorist activities by Shiite and Sunni groups. The Kingdom, together with Bahrain and Kuwait, was targeted in the 1980s and 1990s by Shiite terrorist groups, mostly related, directly or indirectly, to the Iranian regime. Some of these groups appeared in Iraq disguised under different names, while others, backed by armed militias, managed to share power in Iraq. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and some other GCC states have been subject to terrorist attacks by violent Sunni groups such as Al-Qaeda. In this context, the situation in Iraq poses a grave threat to the security of the GCC states as Iraq has turned into a hotbed of terrorist groups of various affiliations. While the Kingdom and Kuwait spare no effort to tightly monitor their long, open border with Iraq and track down Iraq-bound elements and sponsors of terrorist groups in Iraq, it is a task that has proved quite difficult and accounts for a significant part of their security effort.

What is equally worrisome is the fact that the carefully drafted post-occupation legislations in Iraq, has set the constitutional and legal stage for the fragmentation of the country. These legislations center on three pillars: the new constitution, the Federal Authority (provinces) Law, and the Oil Investments Law. The prime mover behind these legislations were separatist Shiite and Kurdish movements that sought from the very beginning to undermine the central government in favor of their sectarian and ethnic self-interests. The GCC states are extremely concerned about the impact of these legislations. Not only does the deteriorated situation in Iraq impact the sovereignty and unity of some neighboring Gulf States, a fragmentation could kindle regional separatist movements that may then lead to further foreign intervention in the region.

There thus exists a legitimate fear that a prolonged civil war could be looming over Iraq ignited by the following factors: growing separatist tendencies, armed militias, foreign interventions, militant groups, the weak role of the central government, and the possible intention of occupation forces of an early pullout which would leave behind a security vacuum. Fighting could erupt among the members of the same sect or community (for example, Shiite infighting) as they compete to lead and represent the community. Alternatively, inter-community fighting may escalate in a bid to control cities and the country in general. The spillover effect of the civil war in Iraq will impact the security of the GCC states. It may result in cross-border battles, refugees, smuggling of weapons and militants along with other customary ramifications of civil war.

Moving Forward

How the Iraqi situation is dealt with will likely to leave direct and indirect consequences on the Gulf region as a whole. Due to the fact that the GCC states have limited options towards the situation in Iraq, these states need to promote a well-defined approach as soon as possible. The best available option is to promote the national sense of belonging among Iraqi citizens and to support national-inclined parties politically, morally and even financially. In view of the Iraqi situation in the aftermath of US occupation, particularly the past two years, such an option could revive the Iraqi national sense, emphasize the Iraqi identity, in turn rejecting Iranian attempts to establish a sectarian rather than a national Iraq and hopefully eliminate the prospects of civil war. A first step was undertaken by the UAE when it granted widespread debt relief to Iraq as well as announced their intention to send an ambassador back to Baghdad. This is a first step that now needs a clear signal from the present-day Iraqi government that they are serious about national reconciliation, preventing the disintegration of Iraq and limiting the influence of Iran

By backing national groups and elements regardless of their affiliations, the GCC states will not be accused of meddling into Iraq internal affairs and instead will be appreciated by Iraqis, Arabs and Muslims as serving the national interests of Iraq on the grounds of invigorating an Iraqi national identity. This will also foil the potential infighting as well as foreign interventions.

This, however, is not sufficient. Other necessary steps include reviewing, amending or canceling all bills that aim to provide a legal or constitutional framework for the total or partial breakdown of the state, ensuring that the law for the dismantling of the militias is endorsed as soon as possible to deprive extreme Shiite leaders from their power base and to prevent further sectarian plots in Iraq and to conclude a written agreement to reintegrate Sunnis inside the military and security establishments of the state. There should also be an extensive campaign to expose political and administrative corruption inside the ideology-based parties. Here again, much of the demand to follow through will fall on to the current Iraqi government with the GCC states ready to support such a process.

The bottom line is that the Iraqi crisis can spill over to impact the political, security and strategic scene in the GCC, particularly Saudi Arabia, in the present and the future. And while the ability of the GCC countries to steer away from or even to deal with adverse ramifications created by the situation in Iraq is limited because they do not have power centers in Iraq, it is still necessary to promote a comprehensive national and regional strategy that can stave off both the current and potential threats brought about by the Iraqi situation since 2003.