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Regional Economic Integration Comes into Focus at Second Baghdad Conference

Mehran Haghirian

Bourse & Bazaar Foundation

December 23, 2022

The second meeting of the Baghdad Conference on Cooperation and Partnership took place in Amman, Jordan on December 20. Last year’s meeting in Baghdad initiated a process for multilateralism, dialogue, and cooperation between Iraq and its neighbours, some of whom met for the first time in years. This year’s gathering in Amman cemented the initiative as an annual regional summit and, importantly, added economic integration to the regional agenda.

In August 2021, former Iraqi prime minister, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, with the support of French president Emmanuel Macron, managed to bring together officials from Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates, as well as representatives from the European Union, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Arab League, Organisation of Islamic Countries, and the United Nations. This year, in addition to all those who participated in the first conference, the two missing GCC states—Oman and Bahrain—were present as well.

Al-Kadhimi largely succeeded by focusing on foreign policy, particularly as he sought to ease regional tensions. He was instrumental in revitalising relations with Iraq’s neighbours, which had been strained for years. He was also key in kickstarting dialogue between Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as setting the stage for Iran-Egypt and Iran-Jordan talks. His hosting of the first Baghdad Conference positioned him—and by extension Iraq—as a trusted regional intermediary.

That is why Iraq’s recent transition to a new government was initially met with concern around the region. Mohamed Shia Al-Sudani’s seemingly pro-Iran stance was expected to once again strain Iraq’s ties with its Arab neighbours. There were reports that Saudi Arabia paused negotiations with Iran because of this change of government in Baghdad. But Al-Sudani’s efforts to retain the mantle passed by Al-Kadhimi put regional leaders at ease. He has committed to continuing his predecessor’s efforts to secure regional and international support for the development of Iraq—Baghdad remains in the title of the conference for this reason.

At the conference, Al-Sudani said, “The priority now lies in strengthening the bonds of cooperation and partnership between our countries through interdependence in infrastructure, economic integration and joint investments.” To that end, he argued that regional states should “strive to work together to transform from consuming to manufacturing countries by establishing joint industrial zones that enhance our collective industrial capacity and link the supply chains to one integrated chain capable of competing in global markets and launching mega projects in various sectors.”

By focusing on economic opportunities, Al-Sudani connected the Baghdad Conference to a wider agenda. He was also making an appeal for support from partners beyond the region, such as the European Union. EU High Representative Josep Borrell was present at the gathering in Amman.

In the Joint Communication on a “Strategic Partnership with the Gulf,” which was published in May 2022, the European Union praised the first Baghdad Conference and committed to supporting the region-led process. While France was the only European country supporting the Iraqi initiative initially, the European Union called for a follow-up process to the Baghdad Conference “with EU involvement” and as part of “a structured, EU-facilitated dialogue process”.

In the face of rising competition with other external players, such as China, Russia, and even India and Japan, European countries and the EU are falling behind. But Europeans can make significant contributions towards regional dialogue on economic integration by helping to create multilateral platforms, transfer know-how and technology, and provide financial support. European expertise can help the region find ways to jointly tackle the basic issues that have impeded economic growth and have resulted in spillover effects, such as increased food insecurity and inability to mitigate the rising challenges of climate change.

Establishing a new development fund by using existing instruments and institutions is key. This would mean including sovereign wealth funds, co-investment programmes, economic zones, or multi-party investment initiatives through regional banks or multinational institutions. The Islamic Development Bank, the various state-owned sovereign wealth funds within the GCC, as well as the European Investment Bank, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, have all supported projects that have a multilateral or regional outlook. This could happen through matching funds allocated to the initiative by involved parties.

Through its Global Gateway project, the EU and regional partners could also “explore joint initiatives in third countries through triangular cooperation, financial support, capacity building and technical assistance.” The EU can draw in the regional players to help with reconstruction efforts in Iraq. The Global Europe Instrument foresees projects and investments in Iraq as well. The Instrument aims to fund international cooperation through grants, technical assistance, financial instruments, and budgetary guarantees.

Cooperation in developing a particular port or completing segments of Iraq’s national railway should be the priority. Exploring joint investments in Iraq’s oil and gas industry as well as green energy transition should also be considered.

Dust and sandstorms, as well as drought and water scarcity, are causing huge financial and human costs for Iraq, but also for all neighbouring countries, as well. Key projects that combat shared environmental challenges, which have proven to be the easiest avenue for cooperation, should be explored.

Even though various regional tensions remain, the outlook for regional cooperation and multilateralism seems bright and the Baghdad Conference is helping define a framework for broader regional cooperation, with integration as its aim. As Dutch diplomat Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, reflected during the meeting, the “demonstration of regional partnership” can now “result in a number of concrete steps.” Hennis-Plasschaert added that these steps “might even lead to a framework for regional integration as an effective means of achieving prosperity, peace and security.”

Photo Credit: King Abdullah Press Office

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