For weeks, Arab editorialists have been arguing for - or, if you like, signaling - the need for an Arab opening towards Iraq. The seeds of this could be seen in the Neighbors Conference held in Kuwait at the end of April, where appeals were made if little actual progress. (*) Since a June 12 article in al-Sharq al-Awsat by former Jordanian Information Minister Salleh al-Qullab calling for an Arab "third way" between Iranian and American visions for Iraq, I've been noticing a dramatic increase in such articles in the Gulf press, usually asking some variation, as in in the UAE's al-Khaleej, of the theme "where is the Arab role in shaping the future of Iraq?" Many of these have been published in al-Sharq al-Awsat, a paper which is often considered to be an outlet for the views of the Saudi leadership.
Over the last few days, events have begun to catch up. In conjunction with Nuri al-Maliki's trip to Abu Dhabi, the UAE announced that it had appointed an ambassador to Baghdad and would forgive Iraqi debt ($7 billion according to the Arab media, $4 billion according to English reports - not sure why the discrepancy). Jordan appointed an ambassador, and the King reportedly plans to be the first Arab head of state to visit Baghdad. Iraq is now reportedly beginning talks with Kuwait over outstanding issues, including debt, oil fields, compensation claims, and the border. This is capped with an editorial by al-Sharq al-Awsat's editor calling on Maliki to respond to the Arab opening with real national reconciliation, and a guest editorial in the same paper by Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh.
There are still important limits to this Arab opening. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the two key players with regard to Iraqi debt, seem to be biding their time (and, might I add, I've been saying for years that it's scandalous that these Arab countries continue to hold on to their claims on that vast Saddam-era debt). Qatar's al-Jazeera just apologized to the Iraqi government after the latter complained about an inaccurate report showing some sensational violence. Despite recent changes, most Arab governments, media, and public opinion still seem to view Maliki's government as sectarian and pro-Iranian. But enough has now happened in the public discourse and in concrete action to think that there's a real Arab (or at least Gulf) policy shift going on here.
While many critics argue (for good reason) that American pressure is driving these changes, something else seems to be going on as well. It's interesting that Maliki chose the venue of a meeting with Arab ambassadors to broach publicly for the first time the idea that Iraq might demand a timetable for withdrawal of American forces in its negotiations over the long-term relationship. Not only would such a withdrawal please most Arabs, depending on how it is handled, but it would also increase their perceived need to do something. Virtually all of the public debate leading up to these new developments highlighted the fact that the US would soon begin to draw down its forces and that Arabs needed to step up now if they did not want Iran to dominate this new Iraq. That's exactly the sort of "stepping up" which those arguing for a responsible withdrawal have expected - that the expectation of an American drawdown would shift the incentives of all the actors and lead them to change their behavior in a productive fashion. Something to be encouraged, and closely watched.
(*) sentence added after I came back from my mid-day meeting.