Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 March 2012
Issue No. 1088
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A Saudi ambassador in Baghdad

The appointment of a new Saudi ambassador to Iraq may not signal a thaw in relations between the two countries, writes Salah Nasrawi

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Members of Iraqi security forces killed in an attack in Haditha, are buried in Falluja, on Monday

After more than 20 years of frozen relations between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, the two long-standing Arab rivals are warming up their relationship amid increasing instability generated by Middle Eastern upheavals and the dangers posed by threats of war with Iran.

Riyadh announced on 22 February that it had appointed the former Saudi envoy to Jordan as its ambassador to Baghdad, marking a return to more normal diplomatic ties for the first time since Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

Saudi Arabia described the move as demonstrating the importance it attaches to its relationship with Iraq. Iraq, which has a functioning embassy in Riyadh headed by a fully-fledged ambassador, welcomed the move, though it indicated that it would have preferred Saudi Arabia to have sent a resident envoy.

However, the move hardly signals a complete change of policy on the part of either Saudi Arabia or Iraq, as the two countries try to manoeuvre their way through the uncharted waters of a new Middle East undergoing drastic changes characterised by ambiguity and uncertainty.

Relations between Saudi Arabia and Iraq have been tense since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq that overthrew former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime, replacing it by a government led by Shias and friendly to Iran.

Unlike other Arab countries, Saudi Arabia refused to reopen its embassy in Baghdad following the change, dragging out its decision to appoint a permanent envoy to Iraq. It has continued to view Iraq's new Shia rulers with scepticism and associate them with its regional rival Iran.

The present new warmth comes a few weeks ahead of a planned Arab summit in Baghdad that Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies want to endorse their attempts to topple the Alawite-Shia regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

On Sunday, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal made it clear that the Saudi-led Gulf group wants to see changes in Iraq's attitudes towards "Iran's interference" in Iraq and the Gulf, as well as in the "Iranian nuclear weapons programme" and Iraq's position towards Syria.

Al-Faisal reiterated that Saudi Arabia and the GCC countries want the Shia-led government in Iraq to end a lingering dispute with leaders of the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc in Iraq over power-sharing before the summit convenes on 29 March.

The warming of ties also comes amid reports that the two countries are in the final stages of finalising an agreement to end a long-standing dispute over detainees held by both countries.

Iraq is believed to be holding some 113 Saudi prisoners, including six on death row. The Iraqi media have been reporting that three of those sentenced to hang are members of the Saudi royal family convicted on terrorism charges.

In Saudi Arabia, there are 138 Iraqi prisoners, including 11 on death row on unknown charges.

What matters now is whether the Saudi move is strategic or tactical, in other words, whether it signals a full rapprochement, or whether it is only a lull in the hostility that has characterised relations between the two countries for decades.

Some observers have convinced themselves that the Saudi gesture reflects a new realism toward Iraq as the country takes on an increasingly significant role in the region following the US withdrawal in December.

They argue that Riyadh's new diplomacy towards Baghdad will help the latter to distance itself from Iran and the Shia minorities in the Gulf, thus enjoying broader Arab support.

Others have been less focussed on the supposedly friendly overture and have tried to look more deeply into a host of other factors that may have contributed to plunging the two Arab countries into animosity.

Since the US-led invasion that empowered the Iraqi Shias, Riyadh's policy toward Baghdad has been firmly anchored to traditional concerns about the status of the Sunni minority in Iraq and Iraqi Shias' ties with Iran and other Shia communities in the region.

Saudi officials have been privately describing the situation in Iraq as nothing short of "domination" by Iran, and the Saudi media has become openly critical of the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki and other Shia politicians, describing them as being "Iranian puppets."

On both a governmental and an individual basis, Saudis are temperamentally uncomfortable with Shias being in power in Iraq, and they accuse them of trying to marginalise the country's Sunnis.

The roots of this relate to the traditional moorings that connect the Saudi royal family with the Sunni religious establishment in a kingdom that advocates Wahhabism, an austere interpretation of Islam.

Most troubling to Saudi Arabia is the possibility of cooperation between the Iraqi Shias and Shias in Saudi Arabia itself, who have otherwise been watching Iraq's political transformation with optimism.

Riyadh's policy agenda toward Baghdad has also been characterised by other concerns, such as oil production. Although Iraq still faces problems with its oil production, it is in line to become one of the biggest oil exporters in the region and therefore a major competitor with Saudi Arabia.

On Monday, Baghdad announced that Iraqi oil production had risen above three million barrels per day for the first time in more than three decades.

Last week, Iraq nominated a candidate to head the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), competing with a Saudi contender to run the oil producers' group.

It is not surprising, therefore, that most Sunnis in Iraq support the Saudi initiative, which they see as a step in the direction of putting new pressure on the Shia-led government, which they have long viewed with suspicion.

Iraqi Shias, meanwhile, seem to view the Saudi move more warily, seeing it as a ruse to help Riyadh maneuver through the Syrian conflict and the Arab summit.

Of greater concern to Iraqi Shias is the fact that the Saudis may only be trying to contain them and make Iraq's official policy veer off from Syria and Iran. Iraqi Shias will likely become less patient if they believe that they are being manipulated by Saudi Arabia in order to undermine their newly gained power. 

Indeed, the assumption that the two countries can make a rapprochement may not make sense, since the mistrust between them is so deeply rooted that it may make all hope of this impossible, at least under present conditions.

The two countries had a history of animosity even before Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, with Saudi Arabia long viewing Iraq as an Arab competitor for regional leadership.

With its vast oil wealth, long history, geopolitical importance and educated population, Iraq has been a headache for Saudi Arabia, which, by virtue of its importance for Islam and oil wealth, aspires to be a major player in the region.

The collapse of the Saddam regime in Iraq and the ascent of the Shias to power have further raised Saudi concerns about what they perceive as the marginalisation of Iraqi Sunnis, who are bound by sectarian and tribal ties with Saudi Arabia, and rising Iranian influence in its north-eastern neighbour.

While realism could prevail in allowing the Iraqi and Saudi leaderships to find a way through such troubled waters, it should not be assumed that a thaw has begun.

It would be a mistake to dismiss the possibility of serious deterioration between Saudi Arabia and Iraq after the Arab summit as a result of miscalculation, inattention or the inability to form a common view on matters that strike at these two countries' vital interests.

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