In Saudi diplomatic shift on Iraq, a hand to Sunnis ... and Shiites

A summer charm offensive holds the promise of helping bring Sunnis back into Iraq's political process and lessening Iran's hold on the country. But Tehran is likely to push back and test the Saudis' resolve.

Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Reuters
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets with Iraqi Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 30, 2017.

With the so-called Islamic State on the brink of defeat in northern Iraq, the government in Baghdad is set to mark another victory: reconciliation with regional hegemon Saudi Arabia.

The oil-rich kingdom and dominant Sunni power has effectively been absent from Iraq since Riyadh cut ties with Baghdad after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

Following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, the Saudis distanced themselves from their neighbor further, writing Iraq off as a “lost cause” that was hopelessly under the influence of archrival Iran, and working to effectively freeze Baghdad out of Arab regional politics.

Experts say a rapprochement now with Saudi Arabia could have a profound impact on Iraq by encouraging disenfranchised Sunnis to reconnect with the political process, curbing Iran’s broad influence over Iraqi affairs, and revitalizing hopes for a political settlement to end the sectarian violence that has wracked the country for more than a decade.

Diplomatic turnaround

The Saudi move isolating Iraq was a self-fulfilling prophecy, experts say. Without Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Gulf allies to keep Iraq in the Arab fold, the country and its leaders were forced to increase their reliance on Shiite Iran for security, stability, and economic sustainability.

Now, with the new leadership in Riyadh confronting both a decline in oil revenue and its own limitations in militarily checking Iranian influence in its disastrous war in neighboring Yemen, Saudi Arabia is adopting a new strategy to boost its influence in Iraq (and not just incidentally tweak Iran): diplomacy.

In a flurry of high-profile visits to Riyadh in late July, Saudi Arabia hosted a series of senior Iraqi officials, including the country’s interior and oil ministers. But the most groundbreaking, and surprising, visit was that of Moqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand Shiite cleric and fervent nationalist who holds deep sway among Iraq’s Shiites.

The visits were followed by a host of goodwill gestures from Saudi Arabia this month, starting with the reopening of the Arar border crossing for the first time in 27 years. Saudi Prince Faisal bin Khalid bin Sultan, governor of the northern border region, was present to personally welcome and greet the first batch of Iraqi pilgrims to enter the crossing.  

Critically, Saudi Arabia announced that it plans to open consulates in Najaf and Basra, major Shiite cities in Iraq with religious and economic importance, and build air and land links with the cities. According to Iraqi officials, the Saudi cabinet also announced the formation of a joint trade council and a committee to oversee a series of projects such as hospitals in Baghdad and Basra and the opening of free trade zones.

It is a deployment of soft power with a personal touch that Riyadh hopes will convince Baghdad, and Iraqis, that their years of isolation in the Arab world are over – and that after a long absence, they can rely once again on Saudi Arabia.

Political settlement

The immediate impact of Saudi Arabia’s reengagement with Iraq is the bolstering of the country’s beleaguered Sunni minority.

Since the 2003 invasion, many of Iraq’s Sunni leaders have refused to come to the negotiating table to hash out a new political agreement with the country’s Shiites and Kurds.

Sunnis have long believed that Iraq’s Shiites, thanks to their backing by Iran, hold the upper hand and can dictate their demands on a leaderless and exposed Sunni community.  Trust between Sunnis and the Shiite-majority government deteriorated further after the perceived targeting of Sunni communities and leaders by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

With Saudi Arabia growing its political and economic influence in the country, experts say Iraq’s Sunnis may now feel more confident in granting concessions to Shiites and Kurds, and in their ability to gain concessions of their own.

Such a development would be critical in efforts to reach a fairer power-sharing agreement that would bring Sunnis into the Iraqi state and quell political and sectarian violence.

“In the near-term, this could pave way for a new power-sharing agreement between Sunnis and Shiites where Sunnis feel like they are given political power and economic influence in proportion to their demographics,” says Kenneth Pollack, an Iraq expert and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

“This would allow Iraqis to address decentralization, executive power, and the role of security services and other enormous issues in Iraq stemming from gaps and vagueness in parts of the constitution that has led to different interpretations.”

Sunni tribal leaders, in interviews with the Monitor, stress that although they welcome Saudi Arabia’s increased role in Iraq as a long overdue “return” to the Arab fold, they need to see the Iraqi government make a goodwill gesture to allow for negotiations, namely disarming and demobilizing Shiite militias.

“An increased role by Saudi Arabia is positive,” says Abdalrazzaq Suleiman, a leader of an Anbar tribe.

“But before we can talk about the future of Iraq, we have to see that this government is willing and able to stop these militias from acting outside the law.”

Another Anbar tribal leader says, however, that Riyadh may lead the realignment many Sunnis have been waiting for.

“The government in Baghdad has tied us to Iran and pitted us against the rest of the world. We want Saudi Arabia to help us rejoin the Arab world, where we belong,” says the leader, who requested not to be named. 


The Saudi outreach comes as a shrewd recognition by Riyadh that not only Sunnis, but Iraq’s moderate and nationalist Shiites, such as Mr. Sadr and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, are growing weary of Iran’s dominance in Iraqi internal affairs, analysts say.

By building economic, transport, and diplomatic ties with key Shiite cities and leaders, Riyadh is emboldening moderate Shiite leaders such as Mr. Abadi and Ayad Allawi, a vice president and former prime minister, who would like to engage and partner with Sunnis. That is an engagement that Iran and its hardline allies within Iraq have discouraged – and at times torpedoed – over the last decade.

With an alternative power such as Riyadh, emboldened Shiite political forces may consider moves unpopular in Tehran such as the demobilization of the Popular Mobilization Units and other Shiite militias influenced by Iran that have sparked a backlash from the Sunni community.

“Abadi is not 100 percent supportive of Saudi Arabia’s policy in the region. But this is an opportunity to chart a new course that is not dependent on Iran and that puts Iraq’s national interests first,” says Raed Mansour, a fellow at Chatham House.

The timing for such a push is not a coincidence. The 2018 parliamentary elections in Iraq are several months away.

By encouraging Sunni participation in the polls and offering an olive branch to the Shiite community, Riyadh and its allies could help further foster the cross-sectarian, Shiite-Sunni coalition building that is vital to Iraq’s political and physical stability.

“It would not be unrealistic to see a reemergence of a coalition that includes moderate Sunnis and Shia that can bring stability to Iraq. This is certainly on the minds of Saudi policy-makers,” says Firas Maksad, director at The Arabia Foundation in Washington.  

Saudi Arabia’s rapprochement with Iraq can also have an immediate impact on the reconstruction of towns and cities hit by the war against ISIS.

News reports, and Saudi insiders, say Riyadh and Baghdad are negotiating a role for Saudi Arabia in rebuilding Iraq’s war-torn cities, namely the predominately Sunni cities of Mosul, Tikrit, Falluja, and Ramadi.

The Iraqi government estimates it will cost $100 billion to rebuild the mainly Sunni areas hit by ISIS and coalition airstrikes, while the UN has called for $985 million in humanitarian relief alone.

“The post-ISIS reconstruction has provided an opportunity for Saudi Arabia to influence Iraq as well as an opportunity for Iraq, which is desperately looking for investors,” says Mr. Mansour.

But initial signs say Riyadh is not ready to write a blank check to Baghdad just yet.

Push-back from Iran

Saudi Arabia has been burned by the limited influence it gained from funneling billions of dollars to Egypt, while a drop in oil prices has forced the kingdom to cut back on public spending and embark on its own ambitious economic transformation plan.

Rather than throwing money at Iraq, Saudi Arabia is likely to select a few, small-scale projects to build the confidence of both the Iraqi government and public, such as the rehabilitation of a strategic oil export pipeline running from Iraq through Saudi Arabia to the Red Sea, and the rehabilitation of the road connecting Baghdad with Amman.

The question remains whether Saudi Arabia has the patience to play the long game. In Iraq there will undoubtedly be setbacks and elements loyal to Iran who will push back, and perhaps even attempt to sabotage their reconciliation with Baghdad, observers say.

 “The question is: when they meet Iranian resistance, how will they respond?” says Mr. Pollack.

“Will they give up and throw their hands up, or will they double down and try harder?”

Iran has trained, equipped, and directs several Shiite militias, has the presence of its elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, and can use its offer of military and security support – expertise and power Saudi Arabia lacks – to sway Iraq’s politicians, clerics, and decision-makers.

“Iran is going to be a very significant and perhaps the dominant player in Iraq for quite some time,” says Mr. Maksad.

“But the reengagement of Iraq by Gulf states opens opportunities to check some of Iran’s unwanted influence and that is important in and of itself.”

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