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Middle East Conference on Cooperation and Partnership: overt and behind-the-scenes diplomacy

Sardar Mesto
2021 / 9 / 13

On August 28, the Middle East Conference on Cooperation and Partnership was held in Baghdad, the capital of Iraq. Initially, this event was planned as a summit of the States neighboring Iraq to develop a common position on stabilizing the situation in this country and its integration into regional political and economic projects. However, the significance of the conference turned out to be much broader and larger.

In addition to the host, the Prime Minister of Iraq Mustafa al-Kazimi, King Abdullah II of Jordan, President of Egypt Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad, Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, Prime Minister of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah Al-Khaled Al-Sabah took part in the event. At the same time, the heads of the most significant states neighboring Iraq were not present at the conference — neither Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, nor Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, nor Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. On the other hand, French President Emmanuel Macron became a notable guest of the conference, although France is not a neighbor of Iraq and has not played a significant role in the politics of this Arab country in the past.

The League of Arab States, which is called upon to actively participate in such events and even organize them, did not attend the Middle East Conference on Cooperation and Partnership in any way. The presence of Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian at the forum, according to the editor-in-chief of the Rai al-Yaum newspaper, Abdelbari Atwan, was “throwing ashes in the eyes” of Arab diplomats. The head of the Iranian diplomacy became a kind of “star” of the event. He checked in twice. The first time when he violated the protocol by taking a photo together with the heads of state. The second time, when he stated his surprise and frustration at the absence of President Bashar al-Assad and other representatives of the Syrian government among those invited to the conference.

The heads of many States and foreign ministries used the conference not so much to discuss the situation in Iraq, but rather to resolve crises in bilateral relations and reconciliation after a long period of confrontation. For example, the President of Egypt and the Prime Minister of the UAE held talks with the Emir of Qatar on the sidelines. Certainly, the prospects of reconciliation between Iran and Saudi Arabia were discussed on the sidelines of the conference, taking into account the Iraqi mediation in this issue. President Emmanuel Macron attended the conference not only as the head of the French state, but also as an informal representative of the United States and the NATO bloc. Participation in the conference is dictated by the need to talk with Iranian diplomats about the prospects of the JCPOA, and to clarify the prospects for the expansion of the European -union- and the West into Iraq to the detriment of Iranian influence.

The Baghdad conference has become a place of lively behind-the-scenes negotiations and an arena for normalizing relations between recent opponents in the Arab world. For example, on the sidelines of the conference, the first meeting between the President of Egypt, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and the Emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad, took place after 2017. In June 2017, the “Arab Four” consisting of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain severed diplomatic relations with Qatar and declared a blockade of this small but influential emirate under the pretext of fighting terrorism. The Quartet issued a 13-point ultimatum to Doha. None of these requirements were met. In January of this year, a reconciliation between the KSA and Qatar took place in the Saudi city of Al-Ula, but the normalization of relations between Qatar and the Saudi partners in the Arab coalition — the UAE and Egypt was postponed. In Baghdad, the two heads of state held talks on the normalization of relations and the -dir-ection of Qatari investments in the Egyptian economy.

In recent months, Baghdad has become an arena for international meetings and regional negotiations. Two months before the Middle East Conference on Cooperation and Partnership, on June 27, 2021, a trilateral meeting was held in Baghdad between Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kazimi, King Abdullah II of Jordan and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. At the summit, it was decided to form a Trilateral Bloc, the so-called “Greater Syria” (Al-Sham al-Jadid). Ironically, the Syrian Arab Republic, the heart of the Arab world, did not enter it. The new organization plans to develop political cooperation, cooperation in the fields of security and economy. The heads of State discussed, in particular, the possibility of carrying out Iraqi oil and gas pipelines to the Red Sea coast to ensure the supply of energy carriers from Iraq to Europe and Africa, the construction of new communications from Egypt through Jordan to Iraq for the supply of Egyptian goods to Iraq and further to Iran and Central Asian countries, the export of Jordanian electricity to Iraq.

At the very beginning of the 1990s, such an interstate association already existed. At the beginning of 1990, they created an alliance of Arab states consisting of Iraq under the leadership of Saddam Hussein, Jordan, King Hussein, Egypt under the leadership of Hosni Mubarak and Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh. This block was destined to have a short life. In the summer of 1990, the Iraqi army occupied Kuwait, and Egypt joined the US-led military coalition against Baghdad. Other States have also chosen to distance themselves from the Iraqi regime. It is not known who was behind the bloc of these Arab states at that time, but now the American administration is actively lobbying for it. The creation of such an alliance meets the US plans to contain Iranian influence in the region and at the same time isolate Saudi Arabia in foreign policy. Time will tell how viable these plans will be.




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