President Joe Biden’s recent visit to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia was dominated by controversy stemming from his meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), which drew media attention away from the presence of leaders from Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq at the summit, and from the United States’ support for their recent tripartite alliance. The countries in this group are clearly no match for the wealth of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, but they nonetheless represent longstanding political interests in the Arab world that remain important and should not be ignored. Whether this tripartite group will ultimately become a rival to, or an appendage of, the GCC states is an open question; but the three countries seem to be intensifying ties with each other while at the same time making sure that they stay in the good graces of the Gulf states.
The Developing Egypt-Jordan-Iraq Nexus
Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq have not always been close friends. Indeed, during the so-called Arab Cold War of the 1950s, Egypt, under the leadership of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, cast Jordan and Iraq as pawns of British imperialism, with Nasser especially critical of Iraqi leadership for agreeing to the western-supported security alliance known as the Baghdad Pact. Even after Iraq went through a revolution in 1958 that ended the pro-British monarchy, Egyptian-Iraqi relations remained highly contentious since then Iraqi leader Brigadier General Abd al-Karim Qasim did not wish to be under Nasser’s thumb. Underscoring these tensions was the fact that Cairo and Baghdad were traditional rivals for leadership in the Arab world.
However, in recent years, these three countries have come together to form a sort of alliance based on shared security, political, and economic interests. Since 2019, a number of meetings have been held between leaders and cabinet-level officials from Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq, with the most recent having been held between the countries’ respective foreign ministers on June 2022 in Baghdad. After that gathering, Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein spoke of “joint cooperation” to address challenges such as consequences of the war in Ukraine, while his Jordanian counterpart, Ayman al-Safadi, noted an agreement to supply Iraq with electricity from Jordan, underscoring that “Iraq’s security is our security.” Meanwhile, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry emphasized that the enhancement of relations between the three countries is intended to “support Iraq and strengthen Iraq’s position in the region and the world.”
A desire to promote regional stability, combat extremism, and lessen Iraq’s dependence on Iran, is also behind the endeavor.
A desire to promote regional stability, combat terrorism and extremism, and, for Egypt and Jordan, to lessen Iraq’s dependence on Iran, is also behind the endeavor. And on the economic side, all three countries appear interested in working to boost trade and increase investment in infrastructure, agriculture, and construction, while also establishing new energy links, particularly new oil and gas pipelines. One plan already exists to build an oil pipeline from Basra in Iraq to the Jordanian port of Aqaba, and from there on to Egypt. This plan would lessen transportation costs for the export of Iraqi oil, allow Jordan to acquire transit fees, and provide Egypt with additional energy supplies.
Although Iraq is an oil-rich country, its economy has for many years been battered by war, terrorism, corruption, and instability. Egypt and Jordan undoubtedly hope that if Iraq stabilizes and its economy rebounds, their own companies will benefit in the rebuilding process. For example, Cairo wants its construction companies to be put to use in Iraq, while Jordan, which suffers from even higher unemployment than Egypt, and particularly among its youth, hopes that trade and investment with Iraq will spur economic growth and make a dent in its jobless rate.
Shared Regional Outlooks, but with Some Differences
All three countries also have an interest in opposing the so-called Islamic State (IS) and do not want the group, or another variation of it, to reemerge. Iraq is perhaps the most vulnerable to such a resurgence because IS cells are still active in many parts of the country. Meanwhile, an IS affiliate in Egypt has largely been confined to the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula, and Jordan’s security services keep a close eye on extremists in the country. Hence, security cooperation and intelligence sharing, in cooperation with the United States and other western countries, can form a bridge between the three countries.
There are, however, some slight differences in the countries’ respective positions on Syria. Both Egypt and Iraq have established diplomatic relations with Bashar al-Assad’s government—Egypt because it wanted to show solidarity with Damascus for fighting against what it saw were Islamist forces, and Iraq because of Shia solidarity links with Assad’s Alawi-dominated regime, which even led many Iraqi Shia to volunteer to fight in the Syrian civil war on behalf of the Assad government. Jordan, on the other hand, was initially opposed to the Assad regime in Syria’s civil war, and has continued to host over 670,000 Syrian refugees. However, relations between Amman and Damascus appear to be on the mend, as Assad and Jordan’s King Abdullah held a friendly phone conversation in early October 2021, signaling a warming of ties. Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan all want a unified Syria and the return of Syrian refugees, though carrying out that prospect will certainly be a long-term proposition.
Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan all want a unified Syria and the return of Syrian refugees, though carrying out that prospect will certainly be a long-term proposition.
Iran, meanwhile, represents a more complicated problem. The Jordanian monarch was the first Arab leader to publicly raise the alarm about a so-called “Shia crescent” in December 2004, warning that Iran was extending its influence through Iraq and then through Syria and Lebanon—something that the king strongly opposed. Egypt has been less alarmed by Tehran, perhaps because of Egypt’s geographic distance from the Gulf. However, Cairo remains concerned about Iranian maritime activity in the Red Sea, which could potentially disrupt shipping through the Suez Canal, from which Egypt brings in substantial revenue. Egypt and Jordan seem to appreciate that Iraqi caretaker Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is in a tight fix, needing to maintain cordial relations with Iran because of pro-Iran, Iraqi Shia political parties, and because of the substantial economic and religious ties between the two countries. Nonetheless, Egyptian and Jordanian leaders see al-Kadhimi as more of an Iraqi nationalist than a Shia leader, and want to help him distance Iraq from Iran as much as possible and instead move closer to the Arab world. The challenge here is that any future Iraqi prime minister from a Shia background may not be as willing to do so as al-Kadhimi appears to be.
Differences also exist on the Arab-Israeli issue, though probably fewer than meet the eye. Both Egypt and Jordan have long had diplomatic relations and economic ties with Israel, while the Iraqi parliament, meanwhile, has criminalized normalization with Israel, influenced in part by Iranian pressure. However, both Egyptian and Jordanian officials have been outspoken on Palestinian rights, much more so than the Gulf states, some of whom have recently established formal relations with Israel. Indeed, while in Jeddah at the recent summit, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi and Jordan’s King Abdullah called for the “establishment of a Palestinian state on the June 4, 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital.” No other Arab heads of state at the Jeddah summit were so explicit in articulating this position, even though it was first expressed by then Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz in 2002, in what became known as the Arab Peace Initiative. It is therefore unlikely that the Iraqi public will make much of Jordan and Egypt’s ties with Israel as long as Cairo and Amman stick to their platforms.
Complex Relations with Saudi Arabia and the GCC States
There is some speculation that the tripartite alliance may become a rival to the GCC states. But in truth, the situation is more complex. To be sure, for historical and political reasons Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq see themselves as the heart and soul of the Arab world with years of diplomatic experience under their belt. Indeed, a former Egyptian foreign ministry official underscored in an interview just prior to the Jeddah summit that “Egyptian-Arab coordination is in the interest of Arab national security.” In other words, Egypt has the military, security, and diplomatic experience that, according to this line of thinking, the Gulf countries continue to need.
There is undoubtedly resentment among the countries in this tripartite alliance that leadership of the Arab world has shifted to the Gulf. But all three countries understand that because their economies are in such bad shape they will be forced to continue to rely on the largesse of Saudi Arabia and the other GCC states for some time to come. For example, Egypt imported 80 percent of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine last year, meaning that Russia’s war, which has disrupted trade and contributed to higher food and oil prices worldwide, represented an extraordinary burden for this country of over 100 million people. In response, in March 2022 the Saudis pledged $15 billion in aid to Egypt, with other GCC states later pledging an additional $5 billion in investments. Egypt therefore cannot afford to alienate these patrons. Nonetheless, Egypt’s—as well as Jordan’s—outreach to Iraq allows them an economic alternative (albeit one that is not as lucrative), should relations with Riyadh sour and Iraq’s economy rebound.
There is undoubtedly resentment among the countries in this tripartite alliance that leadership of the Arab world has shifted to the Gulf.
Similarly, Jordan seems to be looking to hedge its bets, especially since it has had rather checkered relations with Saudi Arabia over the past several decades, stretching as far back as the 1920s when the Saudis seized the Hejaz region of the Arabian Peninsula from King Abdullah’s forefather. Although the Saudis by no means want Jordan to falter economically or politically, there have been times in recent years where Saudi Arabia has suspended aid to Jordan over political differences. There is speculation that Jordan’s King Abdullah suspects that MBS wants to replace him as custodian of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, which is considered the third holiest site in Islam, and the custodianship of which gives Abdullah a certain amount of legitimacy.
King Abdullah seems to have better relations, however, with UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Many Jordanians work in the UAE as civil servants and advisors to the Emirati Armed Forces, a situation that provides significant opportunities for Jordan’s educated middle class. Interestingly, when in 2021 Jordan hosted Iraqi and Egyptian leaders in Aqaba to announce joint development projects, the UAE’s leader was invited as well, but Saudi Arabian leaders were conspicuously absent.
Saudi-Iraqi relations, meanwhile, were strained for many years in the aftermath of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq because Riyadh did not trust the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. However, once Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was forced to resign in 2014, relations started to improve, and the Saudis sent an ambassador to Iraq the following year. Like Jordan and Egypt, Saudi Arabia also wants to woo Iraq back into the Arab fold. The announcement at the Jeddah summit that Iraq, which suffers from acute electrical shortages, would be connected to the GCC electric grid was undoubtedly a sweetener for al-Kadhimi, although it is unclear what this will mean for Jordan’s plans to send electricity to Iraq from Egypt. The Saudis also probably appreciate Baghdad’s role in hosting periodic Saudi-Iran talks, even though said talks have yet to lead to any breakthroughs. The fact that Saudi Arabia invited Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq to the Jeddah summit may also underscore Riyadh’s need to keep these relatively poor but influential countries in its orbit. In other words, the invitation may have been as much an act of cooptation as it was a show of Arab camaraderie.
Implications for the United States
Biden’s praise for the Egypt-Jordan-Iraq alliance was also lost in the media coverage of his trip to Jeddah. Biden not only met separately with leaders from each of these countries and promised economic assistance to bolster food security in light of disruptions from the Russian war on Ukraine, but he also called the trilateral partnership an “an example of positive regional collaboration,” and commended “the unique relationship between Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt, which the United States stands ready to support.” Actually, this was not the first time Washington has endorsed the alliance. In June 2021, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price praised Sisi’s visit to Baghdad, calling it “an important step in strengthening regional economic and security ties between Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan and to advance regional stability.”
It seems that Washington wants this alliance to succeed because all three countries have close security and political ties to the United States.
It seems that Washington wants this alliance to succeed because all three countries have close security and political ties to the United States and, at least in the case of Egypt and Jordan, are still influential in Arab politics. Washington also sees the efforts of both of these countries to try to make Iraq less dependent on Iran as a positive development. Ironically, this group can be considered a sort of new regional alliance, but without the ideological baggage of the Cold War and the legacies of colonialism.
Nonetheless, it would be best for Washington to continue to support the tripartite group, though without trying to direct its policies. Having this alliance develop organically would be best for all concerned, as this not only gives the group legitimacy in the eyes of local actors, but it also promises to produce new and potentially promising approaches that don’t merely rehash those attempted by previous US administrations. At the same time, Washington should see this alliance in more than just security and economic terms and find ways to press these countries’ governments to improve their human rights records and increase good governance. The US should also work on becoming more even-handed on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Not only would such policies contribute to long-term stability in Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan, but they would also greatly improve the United States’ image abroad, which would help increase these countries’ cooperation with Washington.