It is conducive for Iraqis to keep up momentum on building a relationship with a neighbour with which it shares a land border, familial ties, security concerns and commercial interests
Rapprochement between Riyadh and Baghdad can only be a good thing
2017 has been a year of surprising headlines. Perhaps none more so than that of the visit of Moqtada Al Sadr, the Iraqi Shia cleric and leader of the populist Sadrist movement, to Jeddah last week. Greeted by Thamer Al Sabhan, the Saudi minister for Arabian Gulf affairs, who was withdrawn from Riyadh’s embassy in Baghdad last year due to heightened tensions between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, Mr Al Sadr went on to meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Although no media statements were given at the time, the picture of the two of them together spoke a thousand words. It reflected the possibility of the formulation of a new alliance in the region, with an active Saudi foreign policy in Iraq.
After years of fraught and disjointed ties, Riyadh and Baghdad are finding ways to engage with one another. Ironically, Mr Al Sabhan was withdrawn from Iraq due to his open criticism of the Popular Mobilisation Units last October, and was seen last week greeting Mr Al Sadr, the most outspoken critic of the Iranian-backed, state-mandated armed groups. An emergence of an alliance between those who want to limit Iran’s military influence in Iraq and find a framework to escape the sectarianism that is plaguing the region could be one of the Middle East’s most surprising and stabilising developments.
Mr Al Sadr’s trip comes after historic visits by officials from the two sides – starting with Adel Al Jubeir’s historic visit to Baghdad and culminating in Haider Al Abadi’s visit to Riyadh last May.
It would, of course, be naive to think that these visits alone will be able to heal the deep divides between the two nations. Momentum has now been built and needs to be solidified, before it unravels. Only two years earlier, when Saudi Arabia named its first ambassador to Baghdad in a quarter of a century, similar hopes were raised, only to be quickly dashed. However, this time the outreach is happening at the highest levels of Saudi decision-making.
Mistrust remains between the two countries, in part due to a severing of diplomatic relations after Saddam Hussein’s disastrous invasion of Kuwait 27 years ago. Official diplomatic exchanges were cut and many of Iraq’s then-opposition didn’t maintain the ties they fostered with Saudi officials during their years of exile.
The only way to overcome suspicions between Iraq and Saudi Arabia is to build mutually beneficial relations, to ensure the longevity of the current detente.
Strategic interests based on security and trade are the foundations for such a trajectory. With more than 800km of border between the two countries, security concerns on both sides are high. Moreover, both Saudi Arabia and Iraq have recently coordinated positions on oil production, as part of the Opec framework.
The Iraqi cabinet’s decision to prioritise the improvement of relations with Saudi Arabia is a telling sign. Trading relations have all but ceased since 1990. The renewed Saudi focus on the Red Sea as a trading hub means that goods can come through these waters, across Saudi land borders and into Iraq. As Saudi looks to re-open its land borders with Iraq, joint security operations and bureaucratic collaboration can provide the tissue that binds the two countries together.
This rapprochement coincides with a reconfiguration of alliances among Iraq’s political parties – and most importantly the Shia-Islamist blocs – ahead of next spring’s elections. As former Iraqi PM, and current vice president Nouri Al Maliki hedges his bets on coming back to power in Baghdad through one of his proxies, other politicians, among them Mr Al Sadr, seek to build a coalition that stops him in his tracks. These shifting alliances are the backdrop to heated debates inside Iraq on the future of the state – and its military forces. As Mr Al Sadr called for the return of the monopoly over the use of arms to the Iraqi state – and disbanding the Popular Mobilisation Units – Mr Al Abadi was forced to come out in defense of the powerful armed groups, which maintain some popular support. This will likely become one of the defining issues of the upcoming elections. As will the issue of fighting organised crime and the deep seated corruption that has stymied Iraq’s ability to escape the crisis mode is has been stuck for years on end. The leader of Iraq’s Sadrist movement has emerged as the strongest voice calling to over-turn the status quo in Baghdad – particularly when it comes to fighting corruption. However, the jury is still out on his ability to overcome sectarian divides, or the memory of his Mehdi Army that once was the most feared militia in Iraq.
Of course, Iran casts a shadow over Iraq’s internal politics and regional relations. However, it is not the only player, nor is it the sole decision-maker. Having ties with Iran is not a problem in itself. From Oman to Lebanon, several Arab countries have cultivated and maintained close relations with Iran. However, one of the falsehoods that many officials – especially from the United States under the administration of former US president Barack Obama – is that ‘it is only natural for Iran to have a role in Iraq’. There is nothing natural about Tehran commanding tens of thousands of armed men in Iraq, nor is there anything ‘normal’ about Iraqi political figures, including several Members of Parliament, publicly stating they would side with Iran if there was ever to be a war between Iraq and Iran.
Saudi Arabia’s opening up to Iraq – and Iraqi officials’ apparent interest in being receptive to this opening – can lead to a strategic alliance that would tilt the balance that has worked against rectifying Iraq’s relations with the wider Arab world.
Support for improved Iraqi-Saudi relations is not a call for Riyadh to replace Tehran, nor even to act as a ‘counter-balance’. Rather, it is for Iraq to have a productive and stable relationship with a neighbour with which it shares a land border, familial ties, security concerns and commercial interests.