On October 13, 2020, in Cairo, a tripartite summit that brought together foreign ministers of Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq was held. The summit, held within the framework of the “joint coordination mechanism”, was not limited to mere discussions of domestic affairs, but also tackled regional issues and the best ways to enhance cooperation between the three countries.
Last Tuesday’s meeting comes as per the directives of Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, Jordan’s King Abdullah II, and Iraq’s Prime Minister Mostafa al-Kadhimi, after their August 25th trilateral summit in Amman. At the Amman summit, the third to be held in such a format, the three heads of state agreed to boost trilateral cooperation in economic, political, energy, and security affairs as part of efforts to combat the novel coronavirus pandemic. Sisi stressed that “the joint coordination, the willpower, and unity of Arab positions would impose the setters and lines of Arab national security.”
Also, Kadhimi proposed a new Levantine project, in line with the European format, to be based on mutual political and economic understandings between the three countries.
At the end of the October meeting, during a press conference with his Iraqi and Jordanian counterparts, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said that cooperation between the three countries was discussed, especially in the fields of energy, reconstruction and electricity, in “an atmosphere of political and economic consensus.” Moreover, Shoukry added that the foreign ministers also reviewed the latest developments in Libya and Syria. He stressed the need to reach a political solution in the two countries to end the crisis, noting that the meeting in Cairo does not target any party in what appeared to be a reference to Iran, and to a lesser degree to Turkey.
In addition, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said that boosting joint Arab security requires greater cooperation, praising Cairo’s efforts to seek a political solution to the Libyan crisis and affirming Jordan’s support for Egyptian efforts and all efforts that go in this direction. Safadi reiterated Jordan’s position that Iraq should be kept away from any regional influences, saying that the battle in Iraq is a battle to establish stability and implement reconstruction. He also spoke about the Palestinian issue, indicating that there was no real horizon for a solution, and stressing that the novel coronavirus pandemic demonstrated the inter-dependence of Arab countries and that they are looking to devote further efforts of mutual cooperation in various sectors. With regard to specific issues on resources, Safadi said that water security plays “an important part in Arab security,” whilst asserting Jordan’s support for Egypt’s position regarding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). He added that Jordan stands by Egypt in the latter’s efforts to reach an agreement that preserves its right to River Nile water.
Meanwhile, Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein revealed that the meeting focused on economic relations and how to build a mechanism for coordination so as to press ahead with joint actions and future integration between the three countries. Hussein said they discussed mechanisms of cooperation and coordination in the fields of energy, electricity, oil, food, and medicine. Also, he added that Iraq will benefit from the input of Egyptian and Jordanian companies in reconstruction projects in the country.
Prior to this meeting, the ministers of trade and industry of the three countries held a video conference on October 4th in which they agreed to start cooperating in four sectors, namely in the pharmaceutical, chemical, textile, and ceramic industries, provided that each country prepares lists of companies and investors interested in building partnerships in these fields and shares them with the other countries within 10 days.
Reactions to the reunion
More recent opinions of experts, in the light of this last meeting, state that the meetings between the three countries, which began years ago, have yielded so far very little tangible results beyond the usual statements of faith in common ties. No breakthrough was achieved on the practical level when it comes to boosting relations between the three parties. As such, the absence of a breakthrough was frequently blamed on regional challenges, including the growing meddling of Tehran in Arab affairs.
Observers say that the joint coordination mechanism is an attempt to maintain relations while in reality each party is preoccupied with facing its internal problems and external complications surrounding it. It is unlikely that such mechanisms would establish effective cooperation and networking of interests, especially since each party has its own calculations, even if they do not contradict the others’, but they are not among their priorities.
However, in the general acceptation, apart from the economic benefits, this summit’s format seems to be a precursor for a trilateral regional strategic alliance, to counter the influence and actions of Turkey and Iran in the region and to give the three countries more leverage on the international arena. Some Arab observers liken the new alignment to the former Arab Cooperation Council of 1989-1990, formed by the same three countries and North Yemen (with the Jordanians as the main architect) as a counterweight to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), but which collapsed due to divisions between them regarding Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Each of these states is interested in resuscitating intra-Arab diplomacy outside of the Saudi/Emirati channel.
Rakha Hassan, a member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, told Al-Monitor that the recent meetings reflect the growing close cooperation between the three countries, as they share a unified vision on regional issues in the absence of joint Arab action. Hassan said the current Iraqi government is seeking rapprochement with Arab states, away from Iran, and is thus working hard to achieve stability and consolidate state control over weapons in order to start rebuilding the country. “Egypt has extensive experience in the infrastructure sector, and Egyptian construction companies are ready to take part in the reconstruction of Iraq. Also, Jordan will be an important link between Baghdad and Cairo in any energy transfer lines,” Hassan added. Hassan also spoke about challenges that may affect the tripartite cooperation, such as the Iraqi pro-Iran factions’ opposition to the state’s control of arms, the ongoing conflict between Iran and the United States on the Iraqi arena, and the Turkish intervention in Iraq.
Hassan Nafaa, a professor of political science at Cairo University, described this tripartite cooperation as “an alliance of necessity, given the difficult circumstances that these three countries have gone through.”
While the Iraqi government struggles to impose control over its own territory in preparation for the reconstruction of the cities that the Islamic State destroyed in the past years, Jordan is suffering from a severe economic crisis and Egypt has been implementing a strict economic program since 2016. The program has exacerbated the social and economic crises in Egypt, as almost a third of the population suffers from poverty, according to official statistics.
Nafaa declared that the rapprochement between the three countries is not initially of a political nature but concerns commercial and economic goals. Also, “the Gulf states understand the need for an emerging alliance and indirectly encourage it in the hope that it will manage to push Iraq away from Iranian hegemony as much as possible.”
Abdul Hussein Shaaban, an Iraqi researcher, said the nascent axis can only succeed by “turning these agreements into plans and projects that are applicable on the ground.” He told Al-Monitor, “It is too early to say that a new alliance is being formed since a strategic alliance requires a long time to be established. Yet, if achieved, it will benefit the peoples of the three countries and joint Arab action.” Shaaban commented that “the new cooperation comes at a time when the Arab world suffers from the severe religious and sectarian divide, armed conflicts, and civil wars.”
“Nevertheless, the emerging axis can play a political role as well, given the lack of any Arab project in the Arab region in the face of the nationalist hegemony projects, such as the Iranian and Turkish projects, or the Israeli project that seeks to expand at the expense of the Arabs,” Shaaban explained. Commenting on the position of the Gulf states, he said, “I do not think that [the Iraq, Egypt, Jordan axis] will turn into an axis in the face of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Egypt and Jordan have close relations with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, and Iraq is trying to improve its relations with the Gulf countries and calls on them to understand its special case as an arena of Iranian-US conflict.”
“Any limited or broad Arab alliance will seek to boost relations with Saudi Arabia, given its pivotal role at the regional level and ahead of the G20 Summit, which Riyadh will host next month,” Shaaban added.
Evaluation of the axis’ future
What are the chances that the Cairo-Amman-Baghdad axis will become a significant player in the region? According to experts, in more general terms, it is difficult to say. Egypt has been continually increasing its activity and influence in the Middle East, and especially in North African and Mediterranean, issues in the past two years. While it still functions on most issues in tandem with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, it does not do so on all (Iran, Yemen), and on some significant issues (Libya, Eastern Mediterranean and Gaza), it is in the lead. Jordan, as usual, is in the thick of developments and threatened, but has little power, apart from its diplomatic ability to “tie ends together”. Iraq has farther to go to return to regional significance (the Eastern Mediterranean, Libyan and Palestinian issues, for instance, seem very far away from Baghdad), and is still largely held in place by pro-Iranian elements within its leadership and especially its security forces. It is, however, quite interested in restoring relations with its Arab brethren, and the Egyptian-Jordanian option may seem more achievable at this stage, in terms of domestic “digestibility”, than the Saudi-GCC one.
The trilateral combination may enable them more support and “strategic depth” vis-à-vis extra-regional powers and the Gulf States. However, in the end, all three countries are poor (despite Iraq’s oil resources) and dependent for economic largesse on more wealthy partners. None of them has the potential to be the banker of the others, and therefore, their regional aspirations and strategies will be limited by their need to adapt their ways and ends to their means.