By Sinem Cengiz*
The 2003 Iraq war and its aftermath were a milestone in the politics of the country and the region. The fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Baghdad, and the subsequent rise of a Shiite-dominated government, raised concerns in Gulf capitals about Iran’s expanding influence in Iraq and the region.
The need to contain this influence pushed Gulf countries to enhance relations with local actors in the post-Saddam era.
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which is the only regionally and internationally recognized Kurdish entity, appeared as a viable option for this objective. Recent years have seen Gulf-KRG ties deepen. The UAE was the first Gulf country to open a consulate in Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital Irbil in 2012. Saudi Arabia’s consulate there was opened in February 2016.
Saudi relations with the KRG began in the post-Saddam period. When the Kingdom opened a consulate in Irbil, Iran urged the KRG to shut it down. The request was rejected. KRG President Masoud Barzani even received the new Saudi consul general to highlight strengthening bilateral ties.
In 2015, Barzani visited Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, where he met with senior officials. In Saudi Arabia, he was received with an enthusiastic head-of-state reception held by King Salman to demonstrate the KRG’s importance to Riyadh. Then-Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attended the reception, as did other princes and military officials.
Barzani was similarly received in the UAE, which was one of the largest investors in postwar Iraq, with much of the funding going to the Kurdish region. In 2014, Dubai’s Chamber of Commerce opened an office in Irbil to support some 150 Emirati companies already registered with the KRG.
Qatar has invested significantly in the region’s burgeoning energy and infrastructure sectors. In July, a delegation led by the deputy head of Qatar’s Chamber of Commerce visited Iraqi Kurdistan and held meetings with local officials in the governorates of Kirkuk and Sulaymaniyah to discuss ways to improve economic relations. Bahrain is also exploring investments in Kurdish cities.
Barzani’s Gulf tour, and the recent enhancement of ties between the KRG and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), seem to have succeeded in garnering support for the Kurdish independence referendum.
Prominent Saudi journalist and writer Abdulrahman Al-Rashed said most Arabs outside Iraq sympathize with Kurds’ desire for independence. “I am with Iraqi-Kurds’ right to establish their own state,” he wrote this week in Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. In recent months, there have been several expressions of support in Gulf media for the referendum.
Barzani declared in June that it will take place on Sept. 25, despite concerns raised by regional and international actors. While Gulf media and leaders seem enthusiastic about the referendum, this is not the case in the capitals of Iraq’s neighbors. Turkey and Iran, which have considerable Kurdish minorities, say it will further destabilize the region. Both countries are concerned that Iraqi-Kurdish independence could inspire their own Kurdish populations.
If the referendum takes place, it will have significant implications for the politically fragile Middle East. In order to try to delay the referendum, Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani, Turkey’s spy chief Hakan Fidan and US special presidential envoy Brett McGurk reportedly paid separate visits to Irbil. Time will tell whether an independent Kurdish state will serve the GCC’s long-term economic and strategic interests in the region.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes mainly in issues regarding Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. She can be reached on Twitter @SinemCngz
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