Saturday,18 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1302, (30 June - 13 July 2016)
Saturday,18 August, 2018
Issue 1302, (30 June - 13 July 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Saudi’s hashtag diplomacy

Saudi Arabia’s envoy in Baghdad has been taking his diplomacy online, raising questions of whether he is playing by the book, writes Salah Nasrawi

Al-Ahram Weekly

There was probably no better moment in Ibrahim Al-Jaafari’s entire tenure as Iraq’s foreign minister than when Saudi Arabia reopened its embassy in Baghdad in January after a 25-year hiatus.

After he assumed his post in summer 2014, Al-Jaafari made restoring full diplomatic relations between his Shia-controlled government and the regional Sunni powerhouse a priority of his new job.

When Riyadh finally sent its new ambassador to open the mission in Baghdad, Al-Jaafari was quick to hail the move as “mirroring the strategic relationship” between the two Arab neighbours.

Before heading to Baghdad to assume his post, the new ambassador, Thamer Al-Sabhan, announced that the instructions he had received from Saudi King Salman bin Abdel-Aziz were to “boost bilateral relations and overcome all obstacles that hinder cooperation in all fields.”

Saudi Arabia had severed diplomatic ties and closed its Baghdad mission in 1990 after the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Riyadh kept the embassy closed after Saddam’s ouster as tensions between the conservative Sunni kingdom and Iraq’s new Shia rulers grew increasingly difficult.

The reopening of the embassy was seen as a sign of a thaw in relations between Baghdad and Saudi Arabia’s Gulf partners, which have viewed Shia-led Iraq as too close to their main regional rival, Shia Iran.

Such enthusiasm was understandable after the two-and-a-half decade freeze between the two countries, but it soon turned out that the long-awaited rapprochement was premature.

The two countries faced their first diplomatic crisis a few weeks after Al-Sabhan’s arrival when Al-Jaafari clashed in public with his Saudi counterpart at an Arab League meeting in Cairo called by Riyadh to castigate Iran and its regional Shia allies.

Al-Jaafari defended the Shia Hizbullah group and the Hashed Al-Shabi, Shia-led Popular Mobilisation Units, after Saudi Arabia and its allies had pressed for a pan-Arab resolution to designate the Lebanese party and the Iraqi paramilitary force as terrorist groups.

“Hashed and Hizbullah preserved the dignity of the Arabs. Those accusing them of terrorism are the terrorists,” Al-Jaafari told the meeting, prompting the Saudi delegation to walk out.

Earlier, Riyadh had brushed off an offer by Al-Jaafari to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia after the kingdom broke off diplomatic relations with Iran after its embassy in Tehran was stormed by protesters angered by Saudi Arabia’s execution of a prominent Shia cleric.

In the meantime, Al-Sabhan had already made his name in Baghdad, not with quiet diplomacy, but with tirelessly speaking his mind, sometimes trying to get his message across in what have been seen by Shia politicians as provocative ways.

Much of Al-Sabhan’s “public diplomacy” is online, mostly in tweets which he uses to make statements, react to events, send messages or merely try to communicate directly with the citizens of Iraq.

In a world of information overload it seems only natural that diplomats should use modern technology to drive their country’s foreign policies.

Diplomatic communications have drastically changed since the 1840s when governments began using telegrams, making international diplomacy much faster and more prompt.

Some 170 years later, social media diplomacy, including Twitter diplomacy, is creating new messaging tools that are threatening to upend a tradition of carefully worded statecraft and protocol.

Twitter has become one aspect of the growing trend towards online diplomacy that has taken on diverse roles from cordial remarks on bilateral cooperation to brusque exchanges.

Today, the use of Twitter is rapidly expanding by world leaders engaging their citizens and foreign publics. In many cases, tweets by foreign leaders receive media attention and sometimes provoke confrontations.

Among the other senior diplomats in Baghdad who are using Twitter actively is the British ambassador Frank Baker, who sometimes uses it to make policy statements.

On 21 June, Baker tweeted that “military success is important against Daesh [the Arabic acronym of the Islamic State group], but so too are the rights of the civilians fleeing. Iraq must uphold these, a point I make regularly.”

US special presidential envoy to the International Coalition Brett McGurk is another senior foreign diplomat who is very active on Twitter, using it to make announcements on the Coalition’s activities.

The tweets are usually supportive of the Iraqi government’s fight against the Islamic State (IS) terror group.  

Many of Al-Sabhan’s statements have contained efforts by the Saudi diplomat to assert the kingdom’s traditional policy of confronting the influence of Shia Iran, its regional rival, as well as Iraq’s Shia militant groups and political parties which Riyadh considers as Iranian proxies.

Some samples from his recent tweets give the flavour of the whole. In a Twitter post on 29 May, Al-Sabhan wrote that “Iran wants chaos and the destruction of the Arabs through manufacturing a Shia-Sunni divide. It does not trust the Arab Shia. Unfortunately, it uses instruments to play around.”

In another tweet on 3 June, he wrote that “the presence of Iranian terrorists near Fallujah is a testament they want to put Arab Iraqis on the fire of despicable sectarianism as well as their intentions [to make] demographic changes.”

Though these issues are consistent with Riyadh’s foreign-policy objectives since the 2003 overthrow of Saddam’s Sunni-dominated regime in Iraq, using a diplomatic platform to reassert them has been considered as provocative.

With more tweets and statements pouring from Al-Sabhan, the Iraqi foreign ministry summoned him last month “to officially protest against the divisive statements.” The ministry said Baghdad “would not allow anyone to stoke divisions in the country through making sectarian comments.”

Al-Jaafari himself came forward to slam Al-Sabhan’s remarks. “The Saudi envoy’s comments represent flagrant meddling in Iraq’s domestic affairs and run counter to standard diplomatic norms,” he said.

Not unexpectedly, the Saudi envoy’s diplomatic jabs have had some favourable audiences. Many Sunni politicians and lawmakers have commended Al-Sabhan’s statements as reflecting the kingdom’s interests in Iraq.

Saudi Arabia has long been sceptical of the Shia-led government in Iraq, which it accuses of being sectarian and pro-Iran. Though there has been no reaction from Riyadh about its ambassador’s controversial activities, it is believed that the kingdom will probably hope that his statements will put pressure on Baghdad to distance itself from Tehran.

Through close connections with Iraqi Sunni tribes and religious figures and its traditional cheque-book diplomacy, Saudi Arabia can also wield enormous influence inside Iraq.   

It has always wielded its oil wealth and religious influence to try to shape regional events and support figures sympathetic to its world view.

Documents revealed by the Wikileaks group last year revealed that Saudi Arabia was using its financial muscle and connections with some Iraqi politicians who are opposed to the Shia-led government of Iraq to achieve its goals. 

Al-Sabhan, meanwhile, remains defiant. “There is a media campaign targeting the [Saudi] embassy. We have confidence in our brothers in Iraq. The kingdom will never abandon them, and this is an indicator that we are on the right path,” he wrote in one of his latest posts on Twitter.

In the final analysis, what looked in January like a new dawn in diplomacy between the two countries and an opportunity for rapprochement now seems to have been too good to be true.

Although Al-Jaafari has said his government does not contemplate cutting off ties or asking Riyadh to replace its ambassador in Iraq, relations between the two neighbours are expected to remain deadlocked.

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