There is a lot going on in the world this week, from John Kerry's first visit to the UAE, India and Bangladesh as US President Joe Biden's climate envoy, to the dramatic turn of events in Jordan, to various stages of lockdown easing and tightening in various countries. So people would be forgiven if they missed a major news development that occurred on Sunday.
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi came to Abu Dhabi, and was received by Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, with a 21-gun salute and full official welcome. Mr Al Kadhimi also went to Dubai and met Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai. In his one-day visit, he met the top leadership of the UAE, as well as business leaders, and paid a visit to Sheikh Zayed Mosque.
Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed said: “Our relationship is based on trust and a number of positions” upon receiving Mr Al Kadhimi. Importantly, his statement of welcome was aired publicly, giving Mr Al Kadhimi a public boost.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid tweeted about historic relations with Iraq – and the role of its ancient civilisations, saying after their meeting: “Iraq is not like other countries, it is the dawn of human civilisation. In the beginning there was Iraq, then there was civilisation."
These public expressions about the value of Iraq are not only important political messages, they speak directly to Iraqis who are proud of their past but concerned about their present and future. That present and future can be put on a better trajectory with good leadership – and economic growth.
After extensive bilateral talks, the UAE pledged $3 billion in support to Iraq in reconstruction and investment projects. Iraq undoubtedly needs the financial assistance. With a weakened economy, dysfunctional financial systems, corruption, the ramifications of low oil prices and Covid-19, Iraq can use all the financial help it can get. But this package is about more than money. It is a statement of support and confidence.
The UAE would not put money into a country it did not believe will rise. Similarly, Saudi Arabia announced a $3 billion investment in Iraq when Mr Al Kadhimi visited Riyadh last week. These funds will help bolster the Iraqi government's efforts to attract private sector investment but will also signal to the Iraqi people that this government has the confidence of important regional players.
These developments also reflect Mr Al Kadhimi's eagerness to develop relations with Arab partners. From the outset, Mr Al Kadhimi has stressed the importance of ties with the Arab world – and not just a counter-balance to Iran. Relations between Iraq and its Arab neighbours would help to stabilise the country and the region – and open new economic avenues in a region in search of economic growth.
Hours after Mr Al Kadhimi arrived in the UAE, Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr welcomed Iraq’s “openness to other Arab countries”. He echoed Mr Al Kadhimi’s position that Iraq needs to be on the “right path” of better relations with the Arab world. Mr Al Sadr’s statement shows the openness of major political actors to improving Arab relations – but it is Mr Al Kadhimi on whom Arab leaders are increasingly relying for those improvements.
This week marks one year since Mr Al Kadhimi was named prime minister-designate by President Barham Salih. He was tasked with the responsibility of transitioning Iraq to stability and enacting the legal changes needed to hold new elections.
Mr Al Kadhimi is slowly working to meet both ends. Iraq is due to hold elections in October, as Mr Al Kadhimi kept his pledge to hold early elections rather than seek to maintain power for a longer period of time. Some of his supporters urged him to further delay elections, after postponing from the initial June 2021 deadline, but he has refused.
Mr Al Kadhimi is adamant that elections must take place to allow for change to happen in Iraq. That change is primarily targeted at sectarian and corrupt forces. Mr Al Kadhimi does not have his own political party, nor a militia group. And while those are weaknesses in the current system, they can be sources of strength to change the system.
Mr Al Kadhimi is ambitious. It is quite clear when you sit with him. However, the ambition is tied in to Iraq’s success, rather than his personal success.
Iraq’s only real hope of success is the emergence of a civic state, based on a functioning economy, the rule of law and weeding out corruption, sectarian politics and militia rule. Mustafa Al Kadhimi believes in these principles. However, he has to confront, and possibly fight, incredibly strong forces who not only exist but thrive in the current conditions in Iraq. A concerted effort to end corruption and create a political dynamic based on public service will be crucial.
The problems in Iraq, from embedded corruption to the proliferation of militias, make it difficult to sound upbeat on the country. But at the same time, with change afoot in the region and a vibrant civil society demanding improvements in Iraq, there is a window of opportunity to elevate the country, which must be seized domestically and internationally. When Iraqi and American officials sit down for their strategic dialogue on Wednesday, that opportunity should be the focus of their discussion.
Mina Al-Oraibi is editor-in-chief of The National