The "New Levant" initiative: A new regional alliance in the making? Implications and meaning for the region and Israel
By Dr. Moshe Albo | August, 2021
The summit held by the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq (June 2021), while designed to promote strategic collaboration between the three states, also holds promise of a future ambitious perception whereby this cooperation model will be expanded to other countries in the Levant. Emphasis was placed on economic and state security collaboration, including energy and electricity mega-projects, as well as free passage between the three countries. Yet the emerging agreement, if signed, is expected to have long-range political and security implications for the regional arena as well as Israel.
The bilateral relations between each pair of countries are profound and long-standing: during the Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988), Jordan served as an essential source of economic support for Baghdad, exporting Iraqi oil through the Port of Aqaba, and purchasing most of the oil consumed by Amman at a subsidized price from Baghdad. At the same time, Egypt sent more than one million citizens to fill crucial roles in the Iraqi economy, which, in turn, had infused funds into the feeble Egyptian economy. The strategic relations between the three countries were maintained despite the turmoil that Iraq has been undergoing in recent decades.
In 2017, Egypt began to import oil from Iraq, and the project connecting the Basra oil fields to the Port of Aqaba using an oil pipeline started to gain momentum. The pipeline is expected to transport one million barrels of oil per day, and the possibility of extending it to Egypt is currently being discussed. The project will serve as a solution for the Jordanian economy (150,000 barrels per day), as it imports 95% of its energy needs, as well as for Iraq, which views it as essential due to the need to secure its supply of exported oil in light of its problematic reliance on a single exporting route through the Straits of Hormuz.
Another project that has already been decided upon is connecting the Iraqi power grid to the Egyptian one through Jordan. The estimated cost of the project is 2.2 billion Dollars, and it is scheduled to begin within the next 18 months. Jordan signed a similar agreement to provide electricity to Iraq. Moreover, Iraq, in urgent need of help from professional Egyptian and Jordanian companies to restore the damage caused to it and to state infrastructure, has signed an 'oil for development' agreement with them (December 2020). The mechanism set up under the leadership of the energy ministers allows Egyptian and Jordanian development and restoration companies to work in Iraq in exchange for oil quotas.
The economic aspect is a key interest in the emerging collaboration between the three countries; however, it is not the only one. Iraq wants to diversify its sources of support while reducing its economic and energetic dependency on Iran. Paradoxically, Iraq, with some of the world's largest oil reserves, is dependent upon Iran for the import of electricity and gas. Its debt to Tehran currently amounts to some 4 billion Dollars and continues to grow, which, in itself, has far-reaching geopolitical implications. Its dependency on Iran was demonstrated well in early July when the supply of gas and electricity was cut off because of the unpaid debt, leading to popular protests across the country, as well as the dismissal of the energy minister.
Washington and the international community encourage the strategic collaboration between Iraq and both Jordan and Egypt, viewing it as an opportunity to lessen Iran's influence on Iraq while bolstering regional stability.
Egypt sees Iraq as a promising market for investments, the export of goods and human resources, shared commerce, and engagement with professional companies for its restoration and rehabilitation. The oil pipeline project as well as the gas and electricity export project to Jordan and Iraq align with Cairo's general vision of becoming a regional energy hub. The steps that Egypt is taking also attest to a long-range strategy that seeks to position Cairo as a leading regional power in the Levant and East Mediterranean based on economic, energy and security collaborations that enhance its regional and international valuableness, as well as its levers with the Gulf states and Turkey.
Jordan views the emerging economic-energetic collaboration with Iraq and Egypt as a strategic interest that provides a much-needed solution for the kingdom's needs, creating levers with Israel and Saudi Arabia. The new oil pipeline will enable Jordan to buy oil at a subsidized price lower than the one offered on the world market, reducing its dependency on the Gulf states, and, to some extent, on Israel too. The importance of lessening its dependency on the Gulf states, and particularly Saudi Arabia, has grown recently in view of the increasing tension in the relations between the two countries following the failed coup led by Prince Hamzah. This attempted takeover was seen by both international and local media as a Saudi plot to oust King Abdullah, and promote a regional agenda that aligns with the Saudi interest.
In short, Jordan and Egypt seek to lessen Iran's impact on Iraq, anchor the latter as part of an Arab alliance, and spearhead its rehabilitation process, which has tremendous economic potential for them both. Jordanian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ayman Safadi, stated, without mentioning Iran explicitly, that Iraq must free itself of the involvement of regional forces on its soil. Nevertheless, Iran will not give up its clout-filled position in Iraq easily, or the income that flows from their economic and energy collaboration. Should Tehran believe that the "New Levant" initiative jeopardizes its standing in Iraq, it has political and economic levers at its disposal, as well as the military instruments and capabilities to make it fail. At the same time, the new oil pipeline also serves as an opportunity for Iran to bypass the sanctions imposed on it, and allow oil to flow in through Iraq. This potential adds to the concern that the Iraqi leadership will follow Iran's dictated instructions due to its dependency on Tehran, and the latter's growing influence in Iraq.
It is among Israel's interests to maintain stability in the Hashemite Kingdom, and prevent Iran from taking over Iraq, particularly in view of the plausible estimate that the days of American presence there are numbered. The unwavering U.S. support of Amman, as reflected in King Abdullah's last visit to Washington, is essential for keeping the kingdom stable, and preventing the infiltration of Iranian influence.
At the same time, a key interest in Israel's regional security perception should be to strengthen strategic state security collaboration, tighten bilateral relations, and maintain Jordan's status in Jerusalem, while supporting Jordan's requests for support from Washington and the international community.
Israel's should also realize that the "New Levant' initiative is an Arab one, first and foremost, aligned with long-term strategic interests and based on the profound history of relations between the said countries. Washington and the international community support the initiative because of its potential to help restore Iraq, strengthen both Jordan's and Egypt's economies, and curb Iranian impact. However, its expansion to Syria as a mechanism for rehabilitating it will pose a dilemma for Washington and Jerusalem as Assad's regime lacks legitimacy.
At this stage, the "New Levant" initiative is still on the drawing board, and despite the Arab leaders' commitment to advancing it, this initiative will have to face difficult obstacles and barriers that will make it hard to put to practice. In addition, Iran has political, economic, and military levers at its disposal that could ultimately tip the scales in its favor. At present, Israel is required to monitor these developments while understanding that the "New Levant" initiative, as well as the mega-projects being discussed by the three said countries, have long-range implications on its own regional strategy, the campaign against Iran, and key Israeli national security interests.
Authored by Dr. Moshe Albo, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.
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