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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Al Sadr visit underscores the emerging Saudi foreign policy doctrine

The kingdom recognises that Iraq stands at a critical moment in its history and needs assistance

Moqtada Al Sadr with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah. Saudi Press Agency via AP
Moqtada Al Sadr with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah. Saudi Press Agency via AP

While the quartet of nations' meeting in Manama to discuss the ongoing Qatar crisis dominated regional headlines yesterday, another significant diplomatic visit slipped past relatively quietly. However, Moqtada Al Sadr’s trip to Saudi Arabia was of potentially enormous import.

As The National reported, Mr Al Sadr’s visit to the kingdom was his first for more than a decade. The Iraqi cleric met Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Thamer Al Subhan, the minister of state for Gulf affairs, in Jeddah. His visit follows recent trips to Saudi Arabia by Haider Al Abadi, Iraq’s prime minister, and by Qasim Al Araji, the country’s interior minister.

While Mr Al Sadr’s political power is open to discussion – some years ago, he was described in this newspaper’s opinion pages as “a renegade cleric [who] has transformed himself into a statesman” ­ – his visit does underline once again the kingdom’s commitment to regional politics and its understanding of the finer workings of international relations. Mr Al Sadr enjoys significant support in Iraq and is one of several key stakeholders in the country’s future. It also reveals the emergence of a strengthening and clear Saudi doctrine.

The kingdom recognises that Iraq stands at a critical moment in its history. While ISIL may have been defeated in Mosul, the rifts that fostered the group’s growth in the first place remain unhealed. There is broad acceptance that Iraq will need help to rebuild, both physically and politically, if it is to avoid falling backwards once again. There is also widespread recognition that Iran’s malevolent hand has only sought to pick away at and exploit Iraq’s complex sectarian and ethnic fractures. A counter balance to the pressure being exerted by Tehran, particularly through certain paramilitary forces, is urgently required if Iraq is to get back on its feet.