The Arab countries have been slow to establish ties with post-Saddam Iraq. But it’s in everyone’s interest that they do.
The evil bombings continue and so do the kidnappings and terror but Iraq is slowly coming out of the woods. It has already shown that the region is able to produce more than the one-man shows that we have in many Arab countries today.
Iraqi’s current leaders differ from their regional brethren in that they may not be in office until “the last breath” as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak put it so eloquently.
Iraq also enjoys the rather odd position of having Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, as its president. Odd, because he was elected under occupation and is not ethnically Arab (though he puts other Arab leaders to shame with his command of classical Arabic).
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, with his eye on next year’s polls, is already in effect lobbying and electioneering – a sight we that Arabs seldom see. Iraq also has politicians who constitute a serious alternative to the current government, such as Ghazi al-Yawer and Iyad Allawi. There is almost no other Arab country where one can point to an alternative president or leader without risk of being persecuted. This spirit of independent leadership has produced one of the major positive signs in Iraq.
The Gulf states have so far made very few serious steps towards Iraq, though the UAE is the most forthcoming. Abu Dhabi was first to send an ambassador and has received the Iraqi president and foreign minister several times. Similarly, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, visited Baghdad last October, as has the foreign minister of the UAE, Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed, despite the sensitive security situation.
While some Arabs complain that Iran is interfering in Iraq’s internal affairs very few Arab leaders have tried to reach out to Baghdad. This could be attributed to the fact that certain countries like Saudi Arabia are not too happy with the current Iraqi prime minister. In fact it is only natural for Iran to build strong links with Iraq. Rather than simply deploring that, the Arab countries, especially Egypt and members of the Gulf Cooperation Council should launch a diplomatic campaign to win the Iraqi people’s minds and hearts. They must demonstrate to Iraq that its future lies within the bosom of the Arab world.
Recently Kuwait was asked to forgive Iraq’s $24bn in outstanding debt that it owes as compensation for the 1990 invasion. Kuwait’s windfall profits from oil in the past few years can allow it to survive comfortably without this money. There is also a lesson to be learned from Franco-German relations of the past 150 years; Germany invaded France three times from 1870 to 1940 and it was only with the creation of sound economic relations between them that they were finally able to put the past behind them. Kuwait should not ignore the calls to invest its compensation money in joint projects to ensure that their economic futures are tied to each other.
Kuwait would also be sending a positive message to young Iraqis by investing in their future rather than asking them to literally pay for Saddam’s astronomical mistake of invading Kuwait. Keep in mind that more than 18 million Iraqis weren’t even born when the invasion of Kuwait took place and more still are coming of age without the knowledge of Saddam’s regime’s actions. In such circumstances and especially in the Arab world it is easy to dismiss the crimes of Saddam as fabrication or exaggeration by conspiracy theorists and people who prey on the minds of the young and weak.
According to the IMF, Iraq today has the 11th largest economy in the Middle East (including Turkey, Iran and Israel), and the 8th largest in the Arab world with a GDP of $90bn. While the current oil production of 1.82m barrels per day is far below the 3.5m bpd pre-invasion production, plans are in place to increase production to 7m bpd. That is not an unlikely scenario considering Iraq’s current proven oil reserves total about 115bn barrels with experts believing that that figure is very conservative and constitutes only 40% of the actual amount – which would make Iraq the single largest source of the world’s favourite energy resource.
At a time when all the traditional powers of the region are mired in internal issues and lack the political will to move into the 21st century by freely electing their leaders, the field is wide open for a country that has the population, education and ambition to place itself in front. Do the Arab countries want to be part of Iraq, or will they continue to shun it in the hope that a friendlier regime will emerge?
One thing that Iraq has to aim for is being a secular country. Although there is no doubt that religion plays an important part in many people’s lives, it is commonly used as a tool in many Middle Eastern countries to suppress progress and development. But I like to believe that a country in which students go back to school just as soon as possible after a terror attack must be a place where hope and ambitions are in abundance.
People often forget that Germany and Japan still host American bases and troops several decades after the second world war ended and that has not stopped them from developing their industrial, scientific and commercial sectors to emerge as world leaders despite their relatively small sizes. There is no reason why Iraq could not emerge in the 2020s as these two democratic nations did two decades after their devastation.
This article was originally published in The Guardian on August 17, 2009.