Imperiled Hegemony: the Baghdad Summit and Saudi Arabia’s Iraqi Dilemma……….


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Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, an ethnic Kurd and the chief architect of the Baghdad summit, beamed Monday as he counted down the hours to what he bills as a historic moment: Iraq reclaiming its place in the Arab world after years of isolation during the U.S.-led military occupation and its spinoff sectarian war. For the past several summits, Zebari weathered the snubs and slights of Arab rulers, who openly questioned the legitimacy and sovereignty of the Iraqi government because it’s dominated by Iranian-backed Shiite Muslims and Kurds, and was formed in the shadow of Western occupiers. Now, however, the U.S. military is gone, and many of those skeptical Arab leaders have either been overthrown or forced into humbling reforms after the Arab Spring uprisings of last year. With the Arab League so heavily invested in the outcomes of revolts in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Tunisia and — most urgently — Syria, member countries are expected to use the conference to discuss their limited options for containing the regional crises now spilling across borders………

Iraq has always been a dilemma for the al-Saud, an unwelcome presence in the Arab fold. The Baathist regime under Saddam Hussein flirted with the Saudis for eight years as it fended off Iranian counterattacks. The Saudis and the GCC financed and armed Saddam’s regime for eight years of war, as did the West. Yet the Saudis have always been wary of Iraq since before the Republic was established in 1958, actually since long before then. There are several reasons why the al-Saud do not welcome return of Iraq to the Arab fold:

  • Iraq is (potentially) a powerful rival for regional political dominance between the Jordan River and the Iranian border and southward. It is the most populous and potentially richest country in the Arab east. The total Saudi population is less than one half that of Iraq (taking into account that more than one third of the Saudi population are temporary foreign laborers and housemaids). For almost thirty years Iraq was preoccupied with Baathist-provoked wars. The Saudis have had unrivaled domination of the lower tier of the eastern Arab world during that time. That period might also be coming to an end, if the Iraqis can liquidate their Arab al-Qaeda terrorist guests and reconcile with each other politically. Reports indicate that Salafi terrorists are still infiltrating into Iraq from the Gulf GCC states and possibly Jordan, intent on murder. The Salafi terrorists’ assigned role is partly to keep Iraq off balance and too preoccupied with internal security to be involved in the region.
  • Iraq’s petroleum sector has been neglected for thirty years. It is beginning to revive, but will take some time to reach its potential. Iraqi reports now claim they are the second largest producers, overtaking Iran. Other reports also indicate that Iraqi reserves may have exceeded what Iran has. There is some speculation that eventually Iraqi reserves may exceed those of Saudi Arabia. Remember, Saudi output has been going full blast at 8-11 mb/d for decades, while Iraqi and Iranian output (and exploration) were hampered by wars and Western economic blockades. It is hard to give up the position of the biggest fish in the smaller Gulf pond. 
  • Politically the al-Saud never liked Iraq, but they like that country much less now that it has a Shi’a-dominated government. The Shi’a religious monuments and shrines in southern (and other parts of) Iraq have been targets of Saudi Wahhabi raiders since Ottoman days. The Wahhabi rulers of the Saudi Salafi theocracy may have distrusted and hated the previous Baathist rulers of Iraq, but they have nothing but ill will for the new ruling classes of Iraq. They, and some other GCC Gulf potentates, have behaved as if an entitlement was taken away from them, the entitlement that a Sunni Arab elite should continue to rule over 80+% of the rest of Iraqis (mainly Shi’a Arabs and Kurds and Turkmans). In other word, they would like Iraq to be like Bahrain.

The Saudis have don’t yet have a full ambassador in Baghdad, although last year they accredited their Amman ambassador to also cover Iraq. He will lead the Saudi delegation instead of the king or one of the princes. Syria also got the same treatment whey it hosted the Arab summit three or so years ago. The Arab League is a toothless mechanism, has been so since 1970. Its only relevance is when Western powers dust it off and show that the Arab League supports their actions in the MENA region (as in Libya, and almost in Syria).