By Abeer Mohammed
While Iraq hoped the high-profile Arab League summit in Baghdad last week would mark a step forward in relations with its neighbours, observers say many regional states used the event to snub the government.
Although officials declared the event a success, only ten leaders from the 22 Arab League member states turned up. Apart from Kuwait, no Gulf state was represented at a high level. Saudi Arabia and Oman merely sent their Cairo-based Arab League ambassadors.
Ali al-Mosawi, a media advisor to the Iraqi government, played down the low level of attendance, describing the summit as a “success” which marked “a positive step towards improving relations with other Arab countries”.
“It does not matter how they were represented,” he added. “What matters is that they sent representatives.”
Following the December 2011 US withdrawal, Baghdad was hoping the summit would herald a significant improvement of ties with the Arab world, damaged by Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and further hampered by the prolonged presence of foreign troops in Iraq.
Hopes that this would come about were raised in advance when Saudi Arabia and Oman appointed non-resident ambassadors to Baghdad, and the Saudis signed a long-awaited prisoner exchange treaty. Baghdad also recently agreed to pay over 400 million US dollars in compensation to around 640,000 Egyptians who fled the country following the first Gulf war
Ahead of the event, the biggest worry for Iraqi officials appeared to be security. They announce that the venue would be protected by 100,000 personnel and 100 aircraft.
But the no-show by Gulf state leaders was attributed to more complex reasons than fragile security. Experts in regional politics said the poor turnout amounted to a diplomatic snub, calculated to play down the importance of the Baghdad meeting.
“In public, it might be attributed to the country’s security situation, but in fact more veiled issues are the real reasons, mostly differences in attitudes towards regional issues such as Syria and Bahrain,” regional affairs analyst Hamid Fadhel said.
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad was not invited to the summit as his country’s Arab League membership has been suspended.
Baghdad’s stance on the Syrian uprising has been more measured than that of Gulf states, promoting dialogue with Damascus while others like Saudi Arabia pushed for intervention.
Iraqhas also been more critical than others of Bahrain’s Sunni rulers and their crackdown against the Shia majority.
“They [Gulf states] seized on the summit as an opportunity to show their disapproval,” Fadhel said. “Such low-profile representation in a summit hosted by Shia Iraq was the best way, at the best time, to send such a message, suggesting that their non-attendance made the meeting a failure.”
Qatar, for instance, made it clear that it disapproved of the way Sunni Arab minority was being treated by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government.
Speaking to Al-Jazeera television on the eve of the summit. Qatari prime minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem bin Jabr al-Thani said, “Qatar wants the Iraqi government to resolve disputes in a way that unites Iraqi people and gives everyone their rights through a dialogue involving all parties,”
Two days after the summit ended, Qatar extended an invitation to Iraq’s fugitive Sunni vice-president Tariq al-Hashemi, who had sought refuge in the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan following an arrest warrant issued on terrorism charges.
Fadhel interpreted the invitation as a form of retaliation for previous Iraqi condemnations of the treatment of Shia Muslims in Sunni-led countries, Bahrain in particular.
In response, Iraqi officials denounced any interference in its internal affairs. Commenting on the Qatari actions, al-Mosawi said that “just as Iraq does not interfere in the internal affairs of others, we expect the same in return”.
Others argued that Gulf states were concerned that Iraq was gaining too much influence, with its emerging democracy and good relations with both the United States and Iran,.
Ibrahim al-Sumaidaie, a Baghdad-based analyst, said Gulf rulers saw the emergence of a “democratic state, in a region [whose people are] displaying an appetite for democracy, as a threat to them”.
Abeer Mohammed is IWPR Iraq editor. Khalid Walid, an IWPR-trained journalist, contributed reporting for this story. This article appeared at IWPR’s ICR Issue 389.