Recalibrating regional order? The rising Egypt-Jordan-Iraq alignment and its impact in reconfiguring the Levant
The past years have witnessed the rise of a new regional alignment: the tripartite between Egypt, Jordan and Iraq. In two years, leaders of these countries have met four times, and the meetings at the ministerial level have multiplied. This renewed cooperation mirrors the Arab Cooperation Council (ACC), launched thirty years ago and that was short-lived due to the outbreak of the Gulf War. The motivation behind the project features common elements: the disdain of the previous US administration, the economic dependence on Gulf countries and the willingness to address common security issues. How could this new partnership recalibrate regional order?
A renewed cooperation
Relations between the three countries have been always strong but marked by regional developments which have led them to lose their centrality in the Arab region in favour of a new power centre located in the Gulf countries. This was neat after 2011 and the revolts that toppled long-standing regimes in different Arab countries, including Egypt.
The social unease, coupled with an aggravated economic crisis, has made these countries highly dependent on the Gulf. For instance, Egypt would have received 92 billion of dollars from Gulf countries between 2011 and 2019. Jordan, as well, received 5 billion only in 2011. But the economic dependence is not only tied to direct aid but also to the remittances provided by the half a million Jordanians and 2-3 million Egyptians that work in Gulf countries, and which make up for an important percentage of the annual revenue. However, in recent years this support is dwindling since Gulf countries started their transition towards a post-oil economy, marked by the development of new economic sectors and the nationalization of the workforce.
Economic dependence leads to political influence. Gulf countries have used their money to expand their counterrevolution, using aid as a mechanism to reward or punish the countries that abide or do not abide by their guidelines. Examples of this policy are the transfer of two Egyptian islands in the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia, the regional competition against Iran which has kept Iraq hostage for over two decades, or the possible implication of Saudi Arabia in the so-called coup that took place in Jordan in April 2021.
It is no surprising then that economy would be the main driver of this alignment. Economic cooperation between the three countries has steadily recovered during the past years. For example, in 2017 Egypt started importing Iraqi oil and Jordan began to do so in 2019. Besides, there are several projects for energy cooperation over the table, including the Basra-Aqaba pipeline and the interconnection of their electric grids. The three countries are moving towards their economic integration by removing obstacles to trade. Markedly, Egypt committed to reduce a series of fees on trading that will ease investment. As well, the three countries signed a MoU on Industrial integration last November. Moreover, Egyptian and Jordanian business and human capital could benefit from the Iraqi rebuilding process and from the promotion of intra-regional trade.
A post-Trump Middle East
The Trump administration seriously undermined the interests of the three countries and side-lined them from the new regional order represented by the “Deal of the century”. Remarkedly, the signature of the Abraham Accords by the UAE and Bahrain broke the Arab consensus regarding Palestine and, hence, reduced the value of Egypt and Jordan – the only two Arab countries officially recognizing Israel until that moment – to Israel. However, the events of Sheikh Jarrah (Jerusalem) in May last year proved that Israel’s recognition by Gulf countries is not tantamount to the acceptance of Palestinians. The ensuing escalation between Hamas and Israel offered Egypt the opportunity to present again as an essential partner to deal with the armed group.
The arrival of Biden to the White House brought changes to the region. Although the lines of American foreign policy in the region do not substantially change, some issues are being differently addressed. Of particular interest is the issue of Iran, with the Biden administration devoting efforts to achieve a minimum deal that will allow the paralysation of uranium enrichment. This question raises suspicions among its Gulf allies, who nevertheless have supported the accord, but it elucidated the total opposition of Israel. Although the leaders of Egypt, Iraq and Jordan agree with the need to counter Iranian influence in regional affairs, it is not their number one priority. In fact, the regional alignment seeks to walk off from Iran being the backbone of regional politics, as the Baghdad Summit held in August showcased. That event demonstrated how Iraq is becoming a necessary mediator between Saudis and Iranians.
What about Lebanon and Syria?
Iraqi Prime Minister, Mostafa al-Khadimi, referred to this new regional alignment as al-Sham al Jadid (the new Levant). In Arabic, ‘Sham’ is used to name Damascus, and by extension, Syria and the Levant. Thus, this new Levant could never be complete without Syria. For this reason, among the top priorities of the tripartite is the reintegration of Syria and Lebanon back to the region.
Both Lebanon and Syria share many of the priorities of the tripartite. As an illustration, the recent diplomatic crisis between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia is a clear indication of the degree of dependence that Beirut has from both the Gulf countries and Iran and, furthermore, of the disastrous consequences that it is having over its battered economy.
Jordan took the first steps towards this reintegration by restoring diplomatic, military and economic relations with the Syrian regime. Most compelling evidence of this was the agreement signed between Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon to provide Egyptian gas and Jordanian electricity to the former, alleviating the grave energy crisis the country is going through. A diplomatic victory since the gas, that will have to cross Syria through the Arab Gas Pipeline, has managed to get sanction waivers from Washington.
The movement is the signal of ensuing greater cooperation in other sectors. Nevertheless, there are still questions regarding the strong Iranian influence in Syria and the situation of Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries. But, after 10 years of conflict that has ravaged the region, most countries are in for moving forward and rebuilding regional ties.
Recalibrating regional order?
Many have questioned if this new alignment would bring any meaningful change to regional order. This is because traditionally regional order in the Middle East has been understood as a game of alliances and balance of power. Little leverage has been given to more formal regional frameworks, such as the region’s multilateral organizations, frequently labelled as ‘failed’. But regional order is not only constructed through formal regionalising processes but also through more loose and informal regionalization dynamics – the “Arab Spring” is the regional epitome of this.
Informal regional frameworks have often been overlooked. For instance, the Agadir agreement, which brings together Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia, is a remarkable example of how more practical set ups yield results for those involved. The “New Levant” follows this line, establishing meaningful goals adapted to the needs of the countries involved. Apart from the increased economic and energy exchanges between the three countries, the realignment will relief Iraq from Iranian pressure, bringing it closer to the Levant countries and regional schemes like the East Mediterranean Gas Forum. At the same time, the initiative does not seem to elucidate opposition from other regional players, as long as it keeps its economic focus and low profile.
All in all, in a time of growing localism in the region, the new Levant offers a platform for Levantine countries to face some of their domestic problems by strengthening regional ties. If sustained in the long term, it could yield positive results for the regions’ populations and pave the way for deeper reforms.
Victoria Silva Sánchez is an Independent Journalist and Researcher based in Jordan. She covers Middle East affairs for Spanish and international media outlets. Her articles focus on politics, economy, security, social issues and culture. She is a PhD candidate in Political Science at Autonomous University of Madrid.