Sunday’s historic meeting between Moqtada Al Sadr and Crown Prince Mohammed signalled a remarkable rapprochement
Why time was right for Iraq and Saudi Arabia to focus on common enemies
The populist Iraqi cleric and politician, Moqtada Al Sadr, stepped off of his airplane and onto a tarmac in Jeddah’s searing heat and humidity in his customary black robe and turban. He was greeted by Tamer Al Sabhan, the former Saudi ambassador to Iraq who was forced to leave the country last year after remarks critical of Shiite militias fighting ISIL. Upon his return he was promoted to minister of state for Arabian Gulf affairs and has maintained his ties with various influential Iraqis.
Images of the unannounced trip to the kingdom on Sunday by the Shiite leader — himself the commander a militia — and of his meeting later that day with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, startled even close observers of a region that is ever more defined by brutal sectarian logic.
A desire to begin balancing Iranian influence in Baghdad is fueling an emergent and still tentative but determined engagement between Riyadh and Shiite power brokers in Baghdad for the first time since relations soured badly during the tenure of the previous prime minister
“We have been very pleased with what we found to be a positive breakthrough in Saudi-Iraqi relations, and we hope it is the beginning of the retreat of sectarian strife in the Arab-Islamic region,” the cleric’s office said.
A convergence of factors in Iraq have created the context for a potentially historic turning point for the country and the region.
These include the long-term imperative of rebuilding the country and a more cohesive society and state after ISIL’s defeat, greater US commitment to containing Iran and supporting Iraq and growing unease among some Shiite leaders about Tehran’s influence. Some even hope that an Iraqi nationalism that bridges confessional and ethnic communities is resurgent after the territorial defeat of ISIL.
There is also the more immediate political jockeying ahead of crucial parliamentary elections next year.
Mr Al Sadr’s meeting with Prince Mohammed was perhaps the most unexpected outreach, but it is only the most dramatic moment in a process that haltingly began after the fall of Mosul and parts of Iraq to ISIL in 2014.
In 2015, Riyadh and Baghdad reestablished diplomatic ties after 25 years and an ambassador was dispatched to Baghdad. While he was asked to leave a year later by the government of Haidar Al Abadi, the Saudi foreign and oil ministers made surprises trips to Iraq this year and last month the Iraqi premier met with King Salman in Saudi Arabia. Crucially, plans to reopen the Arar crossing on the Saudi-Iraq border for have been completed, with Iraq’s transport minister saying last month that seven additional crossing points will be opened to facilitate direct trade along the 812-kilometre border.
Mr Al Abadi’s government announced on Tuesday that it will establish a committee chaired by the interior minister aimed at strengthening trade and investment ties with Saudi Arabia. Iraqi media also reported that vice president Ayad Allawi, a critic of Iran, and Ammar Al Hakim, a politician who is seen as closer to Iran, but less influential, than Mr Al Sadr, were both invited by Riyadh to ‘visit soon’.
With the near-defeat of ISIL, and Riyadh’s efforts at curbing Iran’s influence, closer relations with Baghdad are part of a wider Saudi strategic outreach. Moreover, with Iraqi elections nearing and new alliances being formed, the time is ripe for Saudi Arabia to build ties with Iraqi politicians and leaders with whom it can work.
Moreover, detente has been supported and facilitated diplomatically by Washington, who pushed Riyadh to overcome its suspicions and not view Iraqi Shiite politics and actors as monolithic. The administration of Donald Trump has been clear in its intention to limit Iran’s "malign" activities in the Middle East, as stated in the US State Department statement last month as Washington announced new sanctions against Tehran.
“The seeds had been sewn over the past several years,” said Denise Natali, who observes Iraqi politics and is a professor at the Pentagon’s National Defense University in Washington. “Iraq needs to have positive and balanced relations with all of its neighbours, and for the US Iraq is a strategic partner, Saudi Arabia is a strategic partner, and no one want to see Iran overextend its influence in Iraq.”
Since 2003, Tehran has become the preeminent regional power influencing Iraq, in large part through armed militias which it supports, or through political factions that look to Iran for guidance. That influence is now at its peak and is opening the way for deeper strategic and economic gains in Iraq and the broader region. It is building a transport infrastructure across Iraq linking Iran to Syria, has hegemony over the economy in Shiite-dominated parts of Iraq and is looking to turn support won on the battlefield for the hard-line militias it trains and backs into even greater political power.
But Iran's ambitions are also fostering increasing concern and resentment even among some powerful Shiite actors, and ordinary Iraqis. For Mr Al Abadi this presents an opportunity to try and achieve the key goal of steering the early post-ISIL phase away from the destructive conditions that grew after 2011 under the sectarian policies of his predecessor, Nouri Al Maliki, that helped the return of the terrorist group. Mr Al Maliki himself, who is vice president and heads the largest bloc in parliament, is maneuvering to succeed the current premier.
The Iraqi prime minister is probably working to the extent possible to draw closer to Riyadh and begin to use it to balance Iranian influence so that Saudi leaders will invest, particularly on helping physically rebuild devastated parts of Iraq and inject life into the local economies. In parallel, Iraq’s politics would also need to better integrate Sunni Arabs and give them a greater stake in local governance. Iraqi politicians also understand that they need Saudi support to strengthen ties with other Arab states watching closely to see how relations will develop.
Mr Al Abadi was made the premier with the blessing of both Washington and Tehran, but as Riyadh looks to become more assertive and as the US hopes to rely more on its regional partners to push back on Iran, the Gulf Arab states are looking to cement their own influence in Iraq.
“All of these factors indicate from an Iraqi perspective that it is very important to maintain positive relations with the Gulf states, with Saudi Arabia particularly,” Dr Natali said. “Iraq cannot get back on track if it’s perceived as being overly influenced by Iran and not having balanced, neutral relations in the region. Iraqis want to be the balancer, they don’t want to be taking sides, because they can’t without risking more destabilization.”
Mr Al Maliki and hardline militias such as Asaib Ahl Al Haq are backed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, who many observers suspect have a vision for such Hashed Al Shaabi groups as a future Hizbollah-type movement that will dominate Iraq politically and militarily.
But other factions in Iran’s power structure -- including other hardline elements as well as the elected government -- are wary of a return of Mr Al Maliki, who they view as having failed to prevent ISIL’s conquest. They are likely to support a more conciliatory figure who is committed to stabilising Iraq post-ISIL, which is important for Iranian security and trade interests.
Mr Al Sadr said his visit to Jeddah was partly aimed at mediating between Riyadh and Tehran, but observers said this claim may lack substance as he is not fully trusted by Tehran. So far he has not announced plans to visit Iran.
“Iran at this stage wants stability, it doesn’t want a very polarising guy in power who may result in another Daesh 3.0,” said Mohammed Hineidi, an analyst at the Delma Institute who studies Iraq's politics . “Iran doesn’t want an Iraq that is constantly unstable and unpredictable.”
The current momentum is also due in part to the coming parliamentary elections next year, which is drawing together Shiite nationalists such as Mr Al Abadi and Mr Al Sadr together with Sunni Arab and Kurdish parties and forcing them to put aside for the moment stark political differences. The Sadr movement and Mr Allawi’s Al Wataniya coalition, for example, have announced plans to ally ahead of the election.
Mr Al Sadr has positioned himself as a populist and sought to appeal to all communities despite being a cleric, and has pressured Mr Al Abadi to appoint a technocratic cabinet and curb corruption. He is the only major Shiite figure in the region to call for Bashar Al Assad to relinquish power, and also forbade his militia from fighting in the battle of Mosul so as not to inflame sectarian tension.
Kurdish parties are opposed to Mr Al Maliki’s return, along with the main Sunni Arab coalitions and Mr Allawi’s Al Wataniya. If the Sadrist party — the second largest bloc in parliament — and Mr Al Abadi and his loyalists can agree on a political calculus that unites these political forces, Mr Al Maliki path back to the premiership will be blocked.
Saudi may be able to use its influence, and the incentive of greater economic involvement, to push Sunni power brokers to ally with Mr Al Abadi, who himself has announced plans for a new “Liberation and Building” coalition. “In the Sunni community, its individuals are prominent but there is no political cohesion,” Mr Hineidi said. “So I don’t think that Saudi or the Gulf will be able to revive a Sunni political class in Iraq. What it will do is it may be able to assist those Sunnis to ally with like minded Shiites and run on a secular platform.”
That outcome is key for Riyadh’s growing interests in Iraq. Gulf leaders are “reaching a point where they’re realizing they need to be working with people they didn’t think they could work with in the past,” Mr Hineidi said. “All these players have different ideologies, they don’t all think and act the same, and I think the Gulf is starting to realise that.”
Riyadh decided to reopen its embassy, in part, to engage more with Najaf, Saudi political analyst at the Atlantic Council Mohammed Al Yahya said at a panel discussion in Washington earlier this year. Najaf is the Iraqi centre of Shiite religious authority and supports efforts to stabilise the state and society across communities. Najaf’s Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani has yet to weigh in on the developments with Saudi or the elections. His support will be crucial.
What Riyadh and the Gulf states can offer in terms of investment in reconstruction in post-ISIL areas is their main source of leverage. But a willingness to invest also hinges on the direction of politics in Iraq, which the kingdom is looking to influence. “Somewhere down the line GCC support in terms of material aid to Iraq is going to be integral to the rebuilding… the GCC has a vested interest in a stable Iraq,” Mr al Yahya said. “Not as things stand currently [politically]” are they prepared to do this, he added. “But you have to start somewhere.”
The current premier is betting on an increasing sense of Iraqi nationalism after the retaking of Mosul from ISIL — though how deep or lasting that valuable sentiment will be is a crucial unknown factor.
“Don’t underestimate how strong Iraqi nationalism is,” Ms Natali said. “It’s a really important moment and to keep writing about Iraq as Sunni vs Shia misses it.”
She added that, “there is a different trend going on on the ground and we need to pay attention, and these engagements [with Riyadh] are Iraqis saying we’re trying to move past sectarianism, we want a civil state, we’re Iraqis.”