East Asian report suggests al-Sudani is reluctant to visit China despite an official invitation

East Asian report suggests al-Sudani is reluctant to visit China despite an official invitation

Shafaq News/ The Iraqi prime minister, Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, has been invited to visit China, but he appears reluctant to be reluctant under the current circumstances with the election around the corner, a report by the Diplomat suggested.

The relationship between Iraq and China is based on more than just oil, despite the fact that the fossil fuel is often seen as its cornerstone. Over 200 projects worth an estimated $5 billion are planned to be implemented under bilateral agreements between China and Iraq, according to local Iraqi media. The head of the Iraqi-Chinese Business Council, Haider al-Rubaie, suggested to the Chinese ambassador that he invite al-Sudani to visit China to discuss future collaborative projects between the two countries.

According to a source close to the prime minister, in fact, the invitation is on the table and is currently being evaluated.

One would think the decision should be straightforward. Currently, China and Iraq are experiencing their best period of bilateral relations. More and more Arab leaders are visiting Beijing, including for the recent China-Arab States Cooperation Forum, and all the previous Iraqi prime ministers(except Mustafa al-Kadhimi) have visited China, including Nuri al-Maliki, Haider al-Abadi, and Adil Abdul-Mahdi. The latter was the last top Iraqi official to visit Beijing and meet Xi Jinping in the Great Hall of the People during his trip in September 2019.

Abdul-Mahdi’s visit and what followed have created a particular narrative and popular view regarding the China-Iraq relationship. The trip was the largest to date, as he was accompanied by a large delegation of ministers and governors from every province in the country. On his return, however, the 2019 Tishreen protest movement emerged. One of the demonstrators’ wishes was for the prime minister to resign. Less than a month after the unrest began, Abdul-Mahdi was forced out of office.

This was enough to create space for conspiracy theories to flourish. According to rumors, it was the China-Iraq deal that resulted in Abdul-Mahdi’s toppling. This conspiracy theory became a dogma, not only among ordinary people but also among the elites.

Kazem al-Sayadi, an independent MP, is one of many to claim that Abdul-Mahdi was toppled in part because of the deal. I have personally heard similar statements repeated without skepticism by other Iraqi MPs, let alone ordinary people. As a matter of fact, Abdul-Mahdi himself thinks that the Tishreen protests were an attempt by the United States and Israel to undermine Iraq as it started to break away, even a little, from U.S. control.

Such beliefs and widespread dogma reflect the complex background of the China-Iraq and Iraq-U.S. relationships.

While Iraq’s prime minister has yet to commit to a China trip, al-Sudani visited Houston, Texas on April 19, accompanied by Minister of Oil Hayyan Abdul Ghani, Minister of Planning Dr. Muhammad Ali Tamim, and a group of prominent businessmen from Iraq. The Bilateral Chamber, a business community, hosted them, and the prime minister took part in a roundtable discussion with American energy, infrastructure, and real estate companies as well as academic institutions. Throughout the trip, al-Sudani stressed Iraq’s dedication to forming strategic partnerships in order to change its energy environment by adopting sustainability and efficiency.

The United States is attempting to gain influence over the Iraqi energy market by focusing on two key ideas: self-sufficiency and modernization. Iraq intends to accomplish these objectives by 2030. Major U.S. corporations – including, among many others, Baker Hughes, GE Vernova, Honeywell, Weatherford, Worley, KBR, SLB, and Total – were invited by al-Sudani to invent in Iraq. In particular, he invited the U.S. companies to bid during the sixth licensing round for Iraqi gas and oil fields during the Huston meeting. The meetings sparked a renewed sense of enthusiasm and unity among the Iraqi business delegation, according to Aida Araissi, founder and CEO of the Bilateral Chamber.

It did not last long, though.

A month later, on May 11, the Iraqi government organized fifth and sixth rounds oil bidding, encompassing 29 projects. Of those, just 13 were awarded, with 10 of them going to Chinese companies such as Zhongman Petroleum and Natural Gas Group, UEG, and Geo-Jade. No U.S. company won a bid.

Ironically, in Houston, al-Sudani highlighted “investment opportunities and promoted the fifth supplementary and sixth licensing rounds, which include 30 oil and gas fields and an exploratory gas block in Anbar, Nineveh, Diwaniyah, Najaf, and Samawah.” Despite the personal invitation, no U.S. company was able to win any contracts.

The winner was China.

The tide seems to have fully turned against U.S. companies, despite al-Sudani’s recent outreach. Recently, there have been protests against U.S. corporations in Iraq; they began in Baghdad and have now extended to Basra.

Neither China nor the United States are openly commenting on the competitive dynamics between them in Iraq. In my encounters and interviews with U.S. diplomats and observers, it became clear that Washington is concerned with China’s influence in the high technology and telecommunications sectors rather than oil. However, despite the concern, the U.S. was unable to stop the expansion of China in Iraqi telecommunications and surveillance.

Only recently, Asiacell, the biggest telecommunications company in Iraq, with more than 15 million subscribers, signed a new “groundbreaking partnership” with the Chinese firm Huawei, which has been heavily sanctioned by the United States. Asiacell is alone; all other telecommunications companies in Iraq are fully dependent on Huawei technology and maintenance. As an informed source told me, the Korak company is currently replacing Ericsson with Huawei.

Given China’s booming commercial ties with Iraq, it might be expected that the exchange of bilateral visits will be more frequent. However, that is not the case, especially when it comes to the top leaders. Al-Sudani has only had one meeting with Xi Jinping thus far, in Riyadh in 2022. The reluctance of Iraqi prime ministers since Abdul-Mahdi to visit China, even while continuing Chinese projects in the country, is a puzzle.

This puzzle makes looking for an answer to the question of “will Sudani visit Beijing” rather complicated. Although he has been invited and that the Iraqi business sector is in favor of his visit, al-Sudani may be reluctant to go.

It is widely known domestically that al-Sudani intends to run for office, as a head of a political list, in the upcoming 2025 general election. The primary cause of his predicament is likely trying to decide whether or not the trip to China would help him win the election; especially considering that Nuri al-Maliki, one of the most influential political leaders in Iraq and the Shia community, is against him. After his visit to Washington, al-Sudani is aware, according to a person I spoke with, that the United States is not satisfied with the overall state of the China-Iraq relationship, particularly in the fields of gas and high-tech. He may not want to risk backlash at a sensitive time for him politically.

Under the present circumstances, it is difficult to see al-Sudani traveling to Beijing. He may want to allow foreign businesses to operate in Iraq, ranging from China to the United States, but as the results of the most recent oil auction showed, it is hard to accommodate them all.

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