Middle East rivals can start a dialogue after Iraq's peace conference

The summit in Baghdad is a positive story, something that the region needs more than ever

Bad news, as it often does, is drowning out good news in the Middle East, particularly during the past month. The region is bracing itself for new challenges, none more vast than Afghanistan's ongoing crisis.

But Saturday's Baghdad Conference for Co-operation and Partnership, hosted by Iraq, means that August is concluding with a measure of good news. Leaders and senior officials from across the Middle East and beyond participated in the one-day summit, some of whom shared sessions with supposed regional rivals, in a bid to promote dialogue and partnership over hostility.

Like Afghanistan, the meeting's long-term consequences are hard to predict. But this time, there are grounds to hope that they could be significantly positive.

The conference has been a political success for Iraq, as well as a chance for its leaders to rally global support as the country seeks to stabilise itself after decades of strife. Iraq's Prime Minister, Mustafa Al Kadhimi, emphasised particularly his desire for increased foreign investment in Iraqi cities, in order that they modernise sustainably.

Financial means might be one way of supporting the country, but Mr Al Kadhimi also stressed an even more fundamental one: stabilising the region, because Iraq's domestic security and prosperity is inextricable from regional politics, and vice versa.

Decades of instability in Iraq make this ultimate goal difficult to achieve. But the conference reminded all in attendance that the remedies are obvious: co-operation and building partnerships among countries that have influence over Baghdad.

Far less certain is how to go about realising these ideals. But gathering leaders from the UAE, Egypt, France, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, as well as senior officials from Iran, Turkey, the EU and the GCC, among others, is an important and unprecedented start.

While in its very early stages, the beginning of such a diverse consensus should not be underplayed. Division, often violent, has become dangerously normalised in the Middle East. Today, if Iraq can slowly start to assemble a regional consensus, so can others.

Throughout its history, Baghdad has hosted people from across the region and the world, for better or worse. Cosmopolitanism and diversity during the time of the Abbasids gave us one of mankind's most important intellectual eras. In recent times, the presence of foreign powers has, on the whole, not been to the country's benefit. But the belligerence of recent dynamics is not an excuse for abandoning dialogue, and it is for this reason that French President Emmanuel Macron is right to call Saturday's conference historic. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, UAE Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, has said that the meeting marks a revival of Baghdad's “regional and global position”.

The current state of the region is set to become even more complicated in the coming months. Adding to this tragedy is the sense that such a deterioration was not inevitable. But among the many rivalries and mistakes in the Middle East, recent and historic, Baghdad Conference for Co-operation and Partnership at least brings hope that the ideal of diplomacy over hostility still attracts the attention of major powers.

Published: August 30th 2021, 3:00 AM