Over the past three years, a trilateral strategic partnership has emerged between Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq. Although the unofficial coordination between these three states has grown over time, the motivations driving this coalescence remain unclear. Observers disagree over whether political or economic factors best explain the behavior of these states, and whether the initial promises of closer ties in the energy, hydrocarbon, and industrial sectors will eventually bear fruit. Indeed, some major questions remain about the future of the unusual trilateral alliance. Where do the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and Iran stand vis-à-vis the partnership? Does the Egypt-Jordan-Iraq grouping seek to influence the Saudi-Iranian regional rivalry, or to transcend it all together? Finally, how will cooperation among these states benefit their domestic economic and political stability and that of the greater region?
The leaders of Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq have collectively met four times since March 2019 to discuss the establishment of a variety of strategic multilateral projects. For the first time, Iraq hosted talks in Baghdad in June 2021—an occasion that witnessed the first visit of an Egyptian head of state to the country in more than 30 years.
The events of the last three years recall the close historical relations between these states. From 1989 to 1990, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, as well as North Yemen, collaborated under the umbrella of the Arab Cooperation Council (ACC) in an attempt to balance the economic and political hegemony of the Saudi-led GCC. However, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 significantly diminished the prospect of regional cooperation with Baghdad and thus doomed the ACC. In spite of this inauspicious beginning, Iraq maintains strong economic ties with both Egypt and Jordan to the present day. Although the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 destabilized the country, both Cairo and Amman attempted to re-establish political and economic ties with Iraq in the post-invasion period.
Economic and Political Diversification in Sight
The trilateral partnership between the three countries demonstrates each party’s desire to restructure its economic and political relationships with the region’s two major powers: Iran and Saudi Arabia. Economically, Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq have sought to enhance cooperation with both sides on a host of issues, including infrastructure, energy, agriculture, construction, and investment, among others.
The leaders of the three countries have agreed to build a large joint energy project, which would link the oilfields in Iraq’s Basra to the port of Aqaba in Jordan via a pipeline. In the future, this pipeline may be expanded across the Red Sea into Egypt. The three allies have also announced plans to build an industrial city on the Jordanian-Iraqi border—a project which is roughly 90% complete, according to their officials.
Finally, there are also plans to connect Jordan and Egypt’s electricity networks to that of Iraq in an effort to minimize the latter’s dependence on electricity imports from Iran. This undertaking has quickly gained steam, with Iraqi and Jordanian officials signing an agreement in September 2020. Following the successful completion of the planned infrastructure of the electricity project, it is expected that Iraq will receive electricity from Jordanian sources by early 2023.
The political ramifications of trilateral integration efforts are far-reaching, creating complications for the calculus of each of the nations involved. Iraq aims to diversify its regional network away from Iran’s influence, but also fears an Iranian backlash. To avoid regional instability, Egypt, Jordan—and even the United States—may not fully exploit the trilateral relationship to isolate Iran.
Egypt and Jordan, on the other hand, aim to minimize their general dependence on Saudi Arabia through future collaboration with Iraq. When Jordan’s King Abdullah hosted Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, Egyptian President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, and the United Arab Emirates’ former Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan in the Red Sea port city of Aqaba, the Saudi leadership was conspicuously missing.
Due to political instability at home, Iraq has adopted an inconsistent approach to the trilateral partnership. Since the talks began between the three countries, Iraq has been represented by three different prime ministers: Haider al-Abadi, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, and Mustafa al-Kadhimi. This reality reflects an enduring and intractable crisis in Iraq’s political system. Top-level political decision-making remains unstable within Baghdad, as the political ruling elite and its consociational democratic system face anti-government protests.
Like Iraq, Jordan’s potential economic role in the three-country partnership may be motivated by the economic crisis sparked by the global pandemic and the country’s limited resources. Meanwhile, Egypt—a previous regional powerhouse whose perennial economic woes and political instability have sidelined it in recent years—is motivated by its own economic crisis and determination to regain some of its lost influence in the region.
From a financial perspective, the aspirations of the three countries may exceed their current financial capabilities. At the end of 2020, Baghdad and Cairo decided to trade Iraqi oil in return for Egyptian construction support, due to Egyptian expertise in the field. In the long term, the tripartite may consider financing from a fourth party—perhaps explaining the group’s collective outreach to the UAE in the latest meetings.
The Middle East is currently experiencing a phase of unprecedented geopolitical flux. The Saudi-Iranian rivalry no longer drives the region’s various players in the way that it had prior to the onset of the Arab Spring. Indeed, taking sides in the cross-Gulf competition between Riyadh and Tehran has proven economically and politically costly, without any significant benefit for other states in the region. Baghdad seeks to expand its diplomatic outreach within the Arab world. Likewise, both Jordan and Egypt are keen to discover potential opportunities for cooperation with Arab partners beyond the GCC. The tripartite partnership among Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq does not equal competition with other Arab states, but it reflects the three countries’ keenness to discover their ability to build new alliances outside of the Middle East’s traditional geopolitical frameworks.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.