Curtis R. Ryan
The question, of course, was whether this recent convergence in a long line of inter-Arab alignments would prove to have any lasting significance. Would it, for example, prove as fluid and fleeting as many previous and similar efforts? Or would it produce substantive cooperation and, accordingly, affect regional politics and even the regional balance of power? Just as importantly, what does a Jordanian-Egyptian-Iraqi bloc mean for relations with the Gulf states, especially in the aftermath of the recent normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, as well as between Israel and Bahrain?
A New Arab Bloc: Egypt-Iraq-Jordan
In many ways, the Egyptian-Iraqi-Jordanian alignment is but the latest in a series of attempts to deal with major shifts in the region’s strategic balance. It has been years since the traditional Arab power centers—Egypt, Syria, and Iraq—dominated much of inter-Arab relations and regional politics. In the wake of the ill-fated US invasion of Iraq and later the Arab Spring uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa, Egypt, Syria, and Iraq declined in influence. In their stead, three non-Arab powers have tended to dominate the region in different ways: Israel, Iran, and Turkey. The Gulf Arab states have attempted to fill the inter-Arab and regional void, trying to shift the centers of power. Yet the modern Middle East remains an area without a clear balance of power, with extensive foreign intervention (including from the United States and Russia) and continuing struggles over power and influence.
The modern Middle East remains an area without a clear balance of power, with extensive foreign intervention (including from the United States and Russia) and continuing struggles over power and influence.
Into this setting, the Egyptian-Iraqi-Jordanian alignment is not a new and powerful alliance in the traditional sense of a formal defense pact. Rather, it is mainly a looser bloc aiming for cooperation on security, diplomacy, and economic relations. In addition, it is not a threat to other Arab states, and certainly not to the Gulf monarchies, at least not economically. But in some ways, it is a challenge to the non-Arab powers in the region. Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq each face different interests and difficulties, but one thing they all have in common is that they have felt increasingly marginalized in contemporary regional politics, and all three have been concerned to varying degrees about the regional policies of Iran, Turkey, and Israel. Given the divisions within the GCC, the new alignment is therefore also intended to provide Arab leadership in response to multiple regional challenges. But alliances and alignments are made between governments, not societies; they are not, in other words, solely focused on external relations but also on helping to ensure domestic regime security. Therefore, in addition to regional pressures, all three regimes have also felt severe internal pressures as they struggle with weakened economies, a global pandemic, and domestic political opposition.
In different ways, Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan have each felt sidelined in the new Middle East. Egypt, as a former regional power, retains the largest armed forces in the Arab world, though without the political influence it once had. Iraq was and is a major oil producer, but it continues in its struggle to restore its sovereignty and security following years of invasion, occupation, and eventually the rise of the Islamic State and other challenges. Jordan, meanwhile, was never a regional power but had grown used to an outsized influence (at least larger than one might otherwise expect for a small state), due mainly to its close relations with key western powers and its perceived geopolitical importance—from the Cold War, to the Arab-Israeli peace process, to the US “War on Terror.” Jordan’s peace treaty with Israel, its close working relationship with the Palestinian Authority, and its extensive Gulf ties meant that, for decades, it could often serve as a back channel for countless negotiations and as a conduit for both public and private interactions between other Middle Eastern states. While all three countries have worries about being marginalized in regional politics, they also share one other unfortunate trait: all have economies beset by chronic crises and therefore are largely unsustainable, at least not without significant outside support.
The new Egyptian-Iraqi-Jordanian alignment echoes an older one—the ACC, or Arab Cooperation Council (Majlis al-Ta’awun al-Arabi), that had brought these three states together, along with North Yemen—in a short-lived political and economic bloc during 1989-1990 that ultimately came crashing down when Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait. The current, new bloc is an attempt to create something that might have more staying power. Both then and now, however, the partners focused on diplomatic and economic rather than military coordination and, in both eras, they saw their bloc not as a challenge to the Gulf Cooperation Council but rather as an outside supplement to it.
To be sure, the new alliance is intended to work next to, not in place of, the GCC or other Arab alignments. In 1989-90, the ACC member states planned to approach their Gulf neighbors as allies, not as opponents, and to form a kind of coordinated diplomatic front for greater economic aid, more favorable terms for labor migration and remittances, and—in Iraq’s case—for postwar reconstruction. Thirty years later, despite all that has changed, these remain key concerns. Today, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt can be seen as rentier states to different degrees: they seek continued economic aid from their allies in the Gulf but they are also looking for consistent rather than sporadic or emergency-induced infusions of financial support.
Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt can be seen as rentier states to different degrees: they seek continued economic aid from their allies in the Gulf but they are also looking for consistent rather than sporadic or emergency-induced infusions of financial support.
Not all the efforts of Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq are external or Gulf-focused. Indeed, most of the discussion over the last two years has centered on politics and economics within and between the three states. In their most recent summit, in August 2020, each of them decried outside interference in Arab politics, presumably referring mainly to Iran and Turkey. They expressed support for Palestinian statehood, condemning Israeli annexation of Palestinian lands. But they also focused on themselves, pledging to work on food and water security, coordinate electricity grids and energy policy, expand trade and investment, and cooperate in their responses to the global COVID-19 pandemic.
At the same time, each country has unique concerns for which it hopes that the other two, and their Gulf allies, could provide assistance. For the Iraqi government, security and economic reconstruction efforts remain urgent concerns as does its worry over both Turkish and Iranian influence and intervention within Iraq. For Jordan, the Hashemite regime expects its bloc partners to support the kingdom’s insistence on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, on the continuing importance of the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, and chiefly, on the Hashemite role as protectors of Muslim and Christian Holy places in Jerusalem—and, therefore, Jordan’s special guardianship role at al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. For Egypt, President Sisi’s regime seeks Arab support in his country’s increasingly tense relations with Turkey, both in terms of security in the eastern Mediterranean and in its intervention in Libya, where Turkey has backed the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, while Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia have backed General Khalifa Haftar and his armed challenge to the GNA regime.
Israel-UAE and Israel-Bahrain Normalization and Its Particular Effects
While officials in the Trump Administration talked of peace treaties breaking out across the Middle East, in reality the new series of 2020 accords amounted simply to normalization of ties between states that had not actually fought each other in war. The pacts made public and formal sets of bilateral ties that had already been growing steadily for the last several years. In that sense, the Israel-UAE and Israel-Bahrain accords simply confirmed relations that already existed. Yet within the three states in the Jordanian-Egyptian-Iraqi bloc, these steps toward normalization with Israel have had a strong impact especially on two of the states: Jordan and Egypt.
Jordan, in particular, was alarmed that the Emirati and Bahraini moves might undermine the Arab Peace Initiative and plans for a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, but the Jordanian state response was quiet and careful not to condemn or alienate the UAE or Bahrain in any way. Jordan’s foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, did suggest that prospects for peace or conflict still hung in the balance and that these accords indicated that Israel should now move toward accepting a Palestinian state. If that were accomplished, he noted, then the normalization pacts might stabilize rather than destabilize the region.
Hashemite regime sensitivities ran high, however, not just in terms of anger with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government for seemingly sidelining Jordan yet again, but especially in Amman’s desire not to offend the UAE or other key Gulf allies. This became especially clear when Jordan’s famed cartoonist, Emad Hajjaj, was arrested for a cartoon mocking the Israel-UAE accord. Hajjaj was eventually let go, following domestic and international calls for his release, but the point had been made. For years now, it has been easier for dissident voices to criticize the Jordanian government itself, or key allies like the United States, than it has been to dare to condemn any Gulf ally of the Hashemite kingdom.
For years now, it has been easier for dissident voices to criticize the Jordanian government itself, or key allies like the United States, than it has been to dare to condemn any Gulf ally of the Hashemite kingdom.
Both Egypt and Jordan had themselves already concluded full peace treaties with Israel many years earlier—Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994. Yet these remained fairly cold peace treaties between states and did not foster relations between societies. Indeed, anti-normalization (with Israel) campaigns by Egyptian and Jordanian civil society and activist groups began before the ink was dry on either treaty, and they continue to this day. Nevertheless, Egypt and Israel have maintained security cooperation, especially in Sinai. This is evident in Israel’s need for Egypt’s help to secure the Sinai-Gaza border in Israel’s struggle with Hamas; at the same time, Egypt has used extensive firepower in Sinai in its own conflict with jihadist militants, with Israel supporting violations of the use of arms in what is technically a demilitarized zone in accordance with the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Egypt and the UAE, meanwhile, retain close ties and, as noted above, have worked on the same side in the conflict in Libya.
Egypt’s President Sisi actually praised the UAE move, suggesting it would not impact Egypt-UAE relations, save that it may lead to a decline in Egyptian Gulf influence if the UAE and other Gulf monarchies no longer need to go through Egypt as a conduit in their relations with Israel. Similarly, Jordanian officials have feared a decline in Jordanian influence along precisely the same lines, if the Jordanian role as backchannel between Israel and the Gulf is no longer needed. Jordan, and the Hashemites in particular, may also be concerned that Jordan’s unique role vis-à-vis the holy places in Jerusalem may be in jeopardy if Saudi Arabia ultimately normalizes relations with Israel and makes its own claim of custodianship in the holy city.
Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq are all likely to tread lightly regarding the policy stances of their Gulf allies. They may disagree with the normalization process and fear it would undermine the Arab Peace Initiative and a two-state solution, but they are unlikely to come out strongly against it. Their need for Gulf support may simply outweigh other concerns. The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar have all contributed to various emergency economic aid packages for Jordan in the era of the Arab Spring and afterward. Similarly, the UAE and Saudi Arabia replaced Turkish and Qatari aid to Egypt when Sisi overthrew Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013. And in 2019, Saudi Arabia—ever in competition with Iran for influence within Iraq—promised a billion-dollar aid package to assist the Iraqi government.
Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq are all likely to tread lightly regarding the policy stances of their Gulf allies. They may disagree with the normalization process and fear it would undermine the Arab Peace Initiative and a two-state solution, but they are unlikely to come out strongly against it.
While Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq each have concerns about the normalization process and what it may mean for their own positions in the region, it is really only Jordan that sees this development as potentially an existential threat—not the normalization process, per se, but if normalization emboldens a right-wing Israeli government to “solve” the Palestinian issue at Jordan’s expense. The idea that an ultranationalist Israeli government might try to make Jordan watan badeel—the alternative homeland for the Palestinian people—rather than to allow an actual Palestinian state to form was once the fear mostly of the far-right in Jordan. Now it is much more a mainstream concern.
The Trump Administration’s “peace plan” and its seemingly tone-deaf approach to the concerns of its Arab allies has only deepened Jordanians’ fears about where this is all ultimately going. They worry, in short, that Palestinians and Jordanians alike will be sidelined, railroaded, and even disinherited from their own lands if Israeli annexation or the Trump/Kushner project reach fruition. For its part, however, the Jordanian regime does not regard such a scenario as inevitable. It may not be able to trust the Trump White House, but it counts on its side many in the US Congress, State Department, Pentagon, and other American institutions. In addition, it fully intends to maintain and deepen alliances with key Gulf states including the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, even as Jordan maintains solid relations with Qatar.
Regardless of whether it ultimately succeeds or fails, the Egyptian-Iraqi-Jordanian alignment is an effort to increase a kind of collective self-reliance beyond the three states’ relations with either western or Gulf powers. But they will nonetheless remain at least partially dependent on these global and regional allies politically and economically for the foreseeable future. Importantly, Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq also see themselves not as poorer relations of the wealthy oil monarchies, hat in hand and looking for handouts; on the contrary, each feels that it has something to offer its Gulf allies. For years, Jordan has maintained extensive intelligence and security cooperation with GCC allies and has the longest border with Israel, and it is most intimately connected to any future Israeli-Palestinian accord. Egypt remains the largest Arab military power and may be the only Arab state able to provide balance against Turkey. Iraq has its own oil economy and border with Iran. In sum, each sees itself as a different kind of buffer zone or frontline state in regional politics.
For the states of the new bloc, Gulf support has been vital over the years; but it seems even more urgent now with the Egyptian, Jordanian, and Iraqi economies in crisis and the coronavirus pandemic wreaking its own additional havoc. For Jordan and Egypt, their peace treaties with Israel never led to the expected economic windfalls, although the accords did elevate both states to the top tier of US foreign aid recipients. If two of the three states already have their own peace treaties and long-standing relations with Israel, and all three seem determined to work together as an Arab front against Iranian and Turkish inroads in the Arab system, then that constitutes a profound set of concerns shared by the Egyptian-Iraqi-Jordanian alignment along with many of the states of the GCC.
Curtis R. Ryan is a professor of political science at Appalachian State University.