In June of 2004, I was invited for a dinner at a restaurant near an airport here in the Gulf. I recall seeing a group of bodyguards dressed in traditional Gulf attire entering the restaurant. Before I knew it, we were sitting next to a table whose guest of honor was Iyad Allawi, the newly appointed prime minister of Iraq, who was hosted by the foreign minister of that Gulf country. I witnessed how genuine and warm their relationship seemed to be. They were exchanging laughs as though they were two old friends, catching up after a prolonged absence.
Allawi’s premiership lasted for under a year, but he re-emerged in the autumn of 2009 as a serious contender for that position once again in the spring 2010 elections. Months later, Iraq is still at a political impasse. Today, many of Allawi’s supporters feel that their vote was stolen. Some Iraqis and Arabs believe that the same political forces responsible for denying the Iranian people a genuine election last summer played a role.
Allawi, a secular Shi’ite politician, became a symbol for those disenfranchised Iraqis who voted for his party, many of them from the Sunni Arab minority, as well as of regional Arab governments that saw in him a chance to restore balance after years of Iranian influence over internal Iraqi politics under the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. For others, Allawi simply represents the lesser of two evils.
By now, Gulf governments feel extremely insecure about US President Barack Obama’s troop withdrawal plans this summer and next. Today more than ever, the plan seems premature, given that the current impasse hasn’t deteriorated further only due to American involvement.
The Arab Gulf states have mostly sat on the sidelines since the 2003 war. Even Qatar, diplomatically the most active state in the Gulf, has been conspicuous by its absence from the Iraqi arena. Indeed, the peninsular emirate has recently successfully mediated similar situations in Sudan, Yemen and Lebanon — the latter crisis ending with the formation of a Lebanese government last November after five months of heavy-handed negotiations.
Unlike Iran, the policy of some Gulf governments seems to be quiet behind-the-scenes backing of Iraqi politicians. Some countries, including the United Arab Emirates, have expanded commercial relations, while others, including Bahrain, have facilitated travel for their Shi’ite citizens to perform the pilgrimage to Najaf. Although the Gulf States understandably want to steer clear of meddling in Iraq’s internal politics, the arena is now wide open for other players to support their candidates.
Tehran, for instance, is known to invite groups of Iraqi politicians for consultations. The relationship between the current Iraqi and Iranian governments reminds me of a car used in driving instruction. The person behind the wheel (Iraq) looks to the outside world as though they are in full control of the vehicle. Yet the instructor (Iran) is sitting, foot on the brake pedal, poised to stop any forward movement at will.
Maliki has displayed tendencies usually associated with dictators of republics in the Arab world. Even before his refusal to give up power, Maliki is said to have appointed senior military and intelligence officials without the parliamentary approval process that one would normally associate with a democracy. Prior to the Iraqi elections, the Times of London reported that Maliki had taken a series of measures to consolidate even more power in his hands.
Maliki’s lack of popularity in the Gulf is an open secret. Unlike the popular Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and a host of other Iraqi politicians, he has never been invited to Riyadh. Last November Maliki, confusing person with state, declared on his website that “all the signals confirm that the Saudi position is negative regarding Iraqi affairs”, adding, “we have used up [all] initiatives from our side.”
Whatever government emerges next will be working on a tight schedule. It may not have the luxury of publicly announcing its disagreement with a heavyweight power in the region. It is also unlikely that President Obama will risk withdrawing his troops if in so doing he leaves behind a government headed by someone who enjoys better relations with Tehran than with Riyadh. Regardless of the identity of its head, the next Iraqi government must take into consideration that two major parties won a similar number of seats and that both their representatives should be included.
What Arab Gulf governments and citizens, Sunnis and Shi’ites alike, want is for an independent Iraq to emerge within the framework of its Arab sister states, yet without negating the importance of having strong political, economic and cultural relations with its non-Arab neighbors. Until this issue is resolved, the continuing political impasse remains a bad omen.