The MED This Week newsletter provides expert analysis and informed insights on the most significant developments in the MENA region, bringing together unique opinions on the topic and reliable foresight on future scenarios. Today we’ll analyse the second edition of the Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership, held in Jordan as a joint attempt to promote a dialogue between the main actors in the Middle East.
On December 20, Jordan hosted the second round of the Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership. A follow-up to last year’s meeting in Baghdad, the Conference had the merit to boost a regional dialogue on the country’s political, security, economic and environmental crises. The summit brought together regional leaders and representatives from France, the EU, and the United Nations, to explore potential cooperative strategies between Iraq and its neighbours, as well as international partners. In regard to any concrete progress made, however, results were mixed. From an Iraqi perspective, the meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan and the Egyptian President Al-Sisi marked a step forward in the growing tripartite cooperation between Amman, Baghdad and Cairo (with Egypt set to host next year’s summit), as well as a positive personal achievement for the Iraqi Prime Minister. Instead, little progress was made towards promoting regional de-escalation with Iran. The Islamic Republic’s intention to remain closely tied to Iraq was made clear at the Conference, while no meeting was held among Iranian and Saudi representatives. “The summit of no miracles”, as some have named it, may have represented a greater success for European stakeholders than it did for regional actors. The initiative benefited greatly from France’s direct engagement, as Paris seems set to invest in the country (also as a means to relaunch its own presence in the Middle East after years of dwindling influence), as well as from the presence of the highest spheres of European diplomacy.
The experts of the ISPI MED network react to the outcomes of the second edition of the Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership in Amman.
There are many reasons why Iraq needs to invest in regional stability
“Iraq continues to face several political, security, economic and environmental crises. To tackle them, it needs considerable understanding and cooperation from its neighbours. For example, Iran and Turkey have recently escalated their military attacks inside Iraq against their Kurdish opposition groups, further destabilising the neighbourhood. They have also been limiting water flow into Iraq’s rivers, adding to the worsening water stress in southern Iraq. The new government of Iraq wants to engage these countries constructively through diplomacy and dialogue. In addition, Iraq needs the Arab countries’ business investment in its infrastructure and their cooperation on energy supply and prevention of violent extremism. In return, Iraq is willing to play a positive role in the region, particularly in the area of multilateral dialogue and mediation between regional rivals, particularly Iran and the Gulf Arab States.”
Dlawer Ala’Aldeen, President, Middle East Research Institute (MERI)
The first international test for Iraq’s new premier
“The last Baghdad Conference was a positive achievement for Iraq, as it demonstrated that regional and international actors are inclined to cooperate with the new Iraqi government. Baghdad’s recent transition to a new administration was initially met with hesitation in the region, as it was expected that Mohamed Shia Al-Sudani’s dearth of foreign policy experience and proximity to pro-Iran actors would compromise the country’s ties with Arab neighbours. Against initial doubts, Al-Sudani’s commitment to perpetuating the efforts made by his predecessor – whose personality and foreign policy achievements were much appreciated in and beyond the region – to gain international support helped to put regional leaders at ease. More broadly, the summit allowed Al-Sudani to shed light on some thorny regional issues affecting Iraq, including the national dwindling water supplies and the regular violations of Iraqi sovereignty by Turkey and Iran in Kurdistan. This was a significant accomplishment for the new Iraqi Prime Minister, as his positive performance at the Conference demonstrated that he is qualified to be at the centre of a high-level international summit and that the relationships built so far do not depend on the ties of his predecessor.”
Francesco Salesio Schiavi, Researcher, MENA Centre, ISPI
A step forward in the Amman-Baghdad-Cairo tripartite framework
“Jordan’s participation in the second regional conference on Iraq on December 20 reflects Amman’s strong commitment to deepen economic integration within the MENA region. Another key-regional partner, Egypt, also participated in the summit. The three countries have collaborated within the tripartite framework of the Amman-Baghdad-Cairo (ABC) agreement since 2019. Currently, the three countries face significant economic, political, social, and environmental challenges, including food security, energy security and drug security constraints, further exacerbated by the Russian-Ukrainian war, and the global economic slowdown. By cooperating on projects and linking their markets and policies, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq can lay the foundation for a stronger combined voice and a unified economic front based on economies of scale. Together, the three countries represent a large market of 150 million citizens and more than $500 billion in the combined gross domestic product (GDP).”
Racha Helwa, Director, empowerME Initiative, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, Atlantic Council
A bed of thorns for Tehran?
“Iranian expectations for this meeting in Amman were low, given a further deterioration in Iran’s international profile due to Tehran’s brutal crackdown on domestic protests and provision of lethal weaponry to Russia on top of the stalemate in nuclear talks. A meeting of Iranian officials with top European Union figures on the summit’s sidelines to discuss the nuclear deal does not appear to have led to a breakthrough, while Iran’s talks with Saudi Arabia over regional disputes remain paused. The change in government in Iraq to a prime minister and cabinet heavily influenced by Iran has reduced the chances for Iranian détente with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The war in Yemen remains unresolved, and Iran is nervous about growing Arab ties to Israel, soon to be under arch-right-winger Benjamin Netanyahu. Under these circumstances, it’s hard to be optimistic about such summitry.”
Barbara Slavin, Distinguished Fellow, Stimson Center; and Lecturer, George Washington University
With “Baghdad II”, France is re-launching its “third-way diplomacy” in the region
“The second Baghdad Conference reflects President Macron’s desire to revive France’s Middle East policy after years of fading influence across the region. Whereas the US increasingly looks at the Middle East through the lenses of its competition with China, France is keen on building its own diplomatic approach, one that downplays Washington-Beijing rivalry and emphasizes areas of cooperation for all regional players (including Iran). It follows the strengthening of Paris’ ties to Gulf partners such as the UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, as well as Macron’s rescue plan for Lebanon after the 2020 Beirut port explosion (which eventually met fierce resistance from the Lebanese political class). The conference also builds on the growing French-Iraqi relationship involving diplomatic and security cooperation – and economic prospects too: French company Total secured a $10 billion energy deal last year with Iraq. Given the limited results of the first conference in 2021, this second edition will be an important test to measure the ability of France to shore up its “third-way” diplomacy in the Middle East.”
Jean-Loup Samaan, Senior Research Fellow, Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore (NUS); and Associate Fellow, IFRI