- By Marc Lynch
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).
He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements.
While it hasn’t received much attention, Iraq’s relations with two key Arab Gulf states have jumped the tracks over the last week. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has publicly declared that he has given up on trying to reconcile with the Saudis. Meanwhile, Iraq and the Kuwaitis are in an increasingly nasty spat over the question of compensation claims dating back to the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. It’s gotten to the point that a majority of the members of the Iraqi Parliament are demanding that Kuwait pay compensation to Iraq for allowing U.S. troops to invade Iraq in 1991! This is a time for American diplomacy to kick into high gear and try to prevent this from getting out of hand, since U.S. plans to withdraw from Iraq depend at least in part on establishing a sustainable regional security architecture.
First, the Saudis. Tension between the Saudis and the Iraqi government is nothing new, of course. The Saudis view the Iraqi government as Shia, sectarian, Iranian pawns (Maliki, the line goes, is guilty of "driving while Shia"), and few of their promises to improve relations — opening an Embassy, forgiving debt, establishing cordial diplomatic ties — have been fulfilled. At the ill-fated Doha Summit, King Abdullah reportedly refused to even greet Maliki. Many Iraqis, meanwhile, view the Saudis as "Wahhabis", supportive of the insurgency and fundamentally hostile to the new Iraq. Late last week, Maliki publicly declared that "there will be no other initiatives on our part as long as there is no sign from Saudi Arabia that it wants to have good ties." The Saudi media has had some angry responses, but not much has happened beyond public recriminations.
Second, the Kuwaitis. The Iraqi government declared last week that it wanted to close the books on Saddam-era issues with Kuwait. This came as Kuwait has strongly resisted Iraqi efforts to be released from its Chapter Seven status with the United Nations, which imposes financial compensation and reparations for Saddam’s invasion. That opposition, combined with Kuwait’s continuing — and frankly absurd — refusal to forgive Saddam-era debt, has driven relations to the boiling point. Iraqis are actually demanding that Kuwait pay compensation for facilitating the 1991 U.S. "invasion" of Iraq (one can only imagine where that precedent might lead when they start thinking about 2003). And members of the Kuwaiti Parliament are demanding that their ambassador be withdrawn from Baghdad.
The U.S. really needs to step in and try to dampen down these Iraqi-Gulf Arab pyrotechnics before they get out of hand. Integrating Iraq into the Arab neighborhood is an important strategic objective, and these public recriminations could set back efforts there by years. Two leading Saudi journalists — the editor of al-Sharq al-Awsat and the director of al-Arabiya TV — both wrote nearly identical articles today asking what the Arabs were ready to do to help the Obama administration of which they were asking so much. While they focus more on the Palestinian question (and they should help on that too) I’d say that shifting their approach to Iraq — Kuwait forgiving debt and getting out of the way on the Chapter Seven status, Saudi Arabia establishing normal diplomatic relations — would be a great place to start.