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A new leader in Iraq offers an opportunity to the Arab Gulf

After seven years as Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki’s reign has come to a close – an event that will be welcome in the Arab Gulf capitals. On Monday, Haider Al Abadi was named as the next prime minister and was tasked with forming a new government within 30 days.

Even though Mr Al Maliki has made it clear that he will not leave quietly, the development marks the end of a significant era in post-war Iraq, during which politics has been shaped probably beyond repair for the foreseeable future. Whether Mr Al Maliki leaves peacefully or fights on, it is good news for the Gulf states.

Mr Al Maliki was a major part of the problem but he was not the only problem, and his successor does not look particularly different.

Mr Al Abadi hails from the same party and holds a similar worldview. But the difference here is that the new government, coming in on the heels of one of Iraq’s most dangerous crises in recent years – the rise of the Islamic State – will play by ­different rules within different dynamics.

The Kurds in the north might concede some of their separatist aspirations in the aftermath of the recent American intervention to help them to fend off an Islamic State offensive towards their provincial capital, Erbil.

The US assistance was reportedly conditioned on abandonment of a move towards full independence, but the Kurds are now an ever more independent force in the Iraqi landscape.

The Islamic State, with the cooperation of local forces, has taken large swathes in three Iraqi provinces, which means that the central government has to be more inclusive as it aims to take back these areas.

And as the inter-Shiite politicking played out before the replacement of the prime minister, the religious establishment in provincial Najaf has shown that it is more clear-headed than the political class in Baghdad.

Given this new reality, the question for Iraq’s neighbours to the south is, what now for Iraq-Gulf relationship?

Since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Gulf states’ attitude towards Baghdad has passed three main milestones.

The first one was the war itself, which was thought to have brought about a change that favoured the Gulf states that had been in constant hostility with Saddam Hussain’s regime since the end of the Iraq-Iran war in 1988.

Then came the interim-government period, to which the Gulf states generally responded with suspicion, but which saw significant investment in post-war Iraq, especially by the UAE.

The third milestone – the Maliki reign – was a deal breaker for the Gulf states. There are several reasons for that, with the Maliki government partially guilty.

But some Iraqis felt the Gulf states had initiated the process of alienation. In particular the accusation, categorically denied by the Gulf states, that they failed to take measures against funding to jihadists coming into Iraq in the run-up to the civil war. Accurate or not, that fed the perception among Iraqis that the Gulf was fueling the civil war.

Similarly, the suggestion that the Gulf was reluctant to release Iraq from Chapter 7, a scheme of crippling sanctions enforced after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 that required restitution to Kuwait, affected perceptions in Iraq.

All the while, regional states appeared unable to adjust to the new reality in Baghdad: that one of the Arab world’s major capitals was now ruled by a Shiite government.

And as they started to adjust, Mr Al Maliki was a stumbling block. Although he emerged out of the civil war (2006-2007) as a truly national figure – working closely with Sunnis and chasing out Shiite militias that wreaked havoc in the capital during the chaos – he lost the plot soon after.

In 2007, American and Iraqi officials accused Mr Al Maliki of creating an entity within his government as a smokescreen to hide an extreme sectarian agenda. Since then, Mr Al Maliki was increasingly sectarian alienating Sunnis both within Iraq and without.

Mr Maliki’s sectarian politicking included deeper ties with Iran, cooperation with the Assad regime in its campaign against the Syrian people, and rhetorical hostility towards Gulf states.

These policies made it even harder for the Gulf states to work with the Iraqi government, despite repeated statements from former foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari that the two sides had almost fixed their differences.

Despite such concerns, the Gulf states could have done more to win back Iraq.

One oversight was not working with national politicians like Ayad Allawi, the first interim prime minister, and not using the initial massive investment as part of a full-fledged strategy of deeper engagement with Iraq.

The Gulf states also failed to speak to Kurdish and moderate Sunni and Shiite politicians and clerics. The lifting of Chapter 7, for example, was a recent opportunity to start an honest push for rapprochement.

The region’s detachment, sometimes guided by a wait-and-see policy, has left a vacuum to be filled by its rivals, primarily Iran and Turkey. Another important fact for the Gulf to consider is that the Iranian influence in Iraq, as the recent crisis has shown, is not as cohesive and omnipotent as was perceived

Today, there is a renewed chance. That chance is not necessarily about the prime minister designate himself, who might or might not be a viable partner, but in the ability to reset the Gulf’s policies towards Iraq.

Regardless of the politics in Baghdad, regional capitals should focus on projecting a new image for themselves in Iraq. Saudi Arabia’s recent pledge of $500 million (Dh1.8bn) to help “those in need regardless of sect and ethnicity” is a good starting point.

Hassan Hassan is a research associate with the Delma Institute in Abu Dhabi

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