The parliamentary summit in Baghdad this weekend, which invited the delegations of all neighboring countries, highlights Iraq's continued push to become a bridge between different power brokers in the Middle East.
On April 20, 2019 Iraq hosted its six neighbours (Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey) in a one-day summit headed by Parliament Speaker, Mohammed Al-Halbousi. Five of his six colleagues attended, with Iran choosing to send one of their MPs, Alaa Al-Deen Boroujerdi. The Summit was held days after Prime Minister Adil Abd Al-Mahdi visited both Tehran and Riyadh. While the Prime Minister is showing Iraq can be an ally to both of these neighbours, Speaker Halbousi is showing that Iraq can also bring both states to the same table. The meeting was largely symbolic and reveals a shift in the politics of the region from the Arab League Summit held in Baghdad back in 2012.
Back in 2012, Baghdad hosted the 23rd Arab League Summit, and its first in the Iraqi capital since 1990, shortly before the former regime invaded Kuwait. The Arab League was being held in Baghdad despite the political tensions domestically and risk of security at the time. Despite years of preparation and millions spent, most of the Gulf states such as Saudi and Qatar gave Iraq the cold shoulder by sending low level delegates while Kuwait and others sent their leaders.
At the time, the Summit in 2012 was the first after the Arab Spring and many of the countries had experienced revolutions, while Syria was the main talking point as the civil war had just begun. The meeting in Baghdad neither convinced the Gulf states of the new political reality in Iraq, nor was a solution found for the conflict in Syria. Fast forward seven years later, not only was Saudi present at the Baghdad Summit with the head of their legislature, Abdullah ibn Muhammad Al ash-Sheikh but so was Syria, which was suspended from the Arab League back in 2012.
While there were no major announcements at or after the meeting, other than general statements such as recommitting to Iraq’s territorial integrity and stability, it is still worth commending being able to see these seven countries, which are often at odds with one another be able to convene together in one place. Little was established from the Arab League Summit in 2012, but the message was clear at the time, many states like Saudi Arabia were not willing to welcome back diplomatic ties with Iraq, nor were they interested to find a solution.
That is no longer the case today. Ever since the premiership of Abadi and the failure of Da’ish to change the landscape of Iraq, Saudi has reengaged with their northern neighbour and that is a positive sign. However, it is important to always keep in mind why it took Riyadh this long to be accepting of Baghdad.
As for Syria, this Summit was a clear sign and attempt from Iraq to help Damascus normalize relations with neighbouring states. Iraqis have not shied away from the fact that they welcome the return of Syria to the Arab League and normalization with all in the region. Iraqi and Syrian officials have been travelling back and forth between Baghdad and Damascus for quite some time now and it makes sense on a state level for why the Government of Iraq would pursue this path. However, many Iraqis will be critical of Syrian President, Bashar Al-Assad, due to his bloody past in Iraq and many will be looking for accountability of past terrorist attacks connected to the Syrian Government.
For Iraq, comparing the preparation time and ease of logistics due to improvement in the capital’s security is reflective of how far Baghdad has come since 2012. While the Baghdad Summit was smaller than the Arab League Summit, the ability to bring its six neighbours to the same table is significant. The benefit in all of this is not the PR for Iraq’s Parliament Speaker, but rather showing Iraq’s neighbours the investment they have in Iraq today and the potential role Iraq can play in the region, which would be beneficial to all. If all neighbouring states viewed Iraq in such an integral manner, then it becomes easier for Iraq to maintain and improve its security and development.
Iraq has shown commitment in its path towards democracy and stability throughout difficult times in the past 16 years. However, the lack of acceptance and commitment of that from its neighbours has made the situation in Iraq more difficult. The hope is that is changing with events like the Baghdad Summit taking place.