Sunday,24 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1335, (9 - 15 March 2017)
Sunday,24 February, 2019
Issue 1335, (9 - 15 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

An impossible rapprochement?

Saudi Arabia has been making friends with Iraq, but true reconciliation will be fraught with difficulties

Mosul under seige
Mosul under seige

Saudi Arabia’s attitude to the Shia-led government in Iraq seems to have undergone a sudden reset. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubair made a surprise visit to Baghdad last month, some 14 years after the US-led invasion of Iraq which toppled the regime of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Giving its full backing to Al-Jubair’s shuttle diplomacy, the Saudi government said the move was meant to “stress the brotherly bonds between Iraq and the kingdom” and expressed its determination to boost relations with Baghdad.

But even if Riyadh’s conciliatory tone stems from a genuine belief in diplomatic niceties to restore normal ties with Baghdad, the future of the Iraqi-Saudi relationship will remain unpredictable and largely hinge on the outcome of the present struggles in Iraq and the resolution of many Middle East conflicts.

Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties with Iraq and closed its Baghdad embassy in 1990 after Saddam invaded Kuwait. Riyadh kept the mission in Baghdad shut after Saddam’s ouster as tensions between the Sunni powerhouse and Iraq’s new Shia rulers grew increasingly difficult.

When Riyadh finally sent its new ambassador to re-open the Saudi embassy in Baghdad in December 2015, Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim Al-Jaafari was quick to hail the move as “mirroring the strategic relationship” between the two Arab neighbours.

However, enthusiasm for rapprochement soon gave way to despair when officials from both countries failed to dust off their differences over bilateral issues and the region’s multiple problems, especially the influence of Iran.

Diplomatic relations remained strained as the two countries continued to view each other with suspicion and remained divided over many regional conflicts.

In August 2016, Baghdad asked Riyadh to recall its ambassador, Thamer Al-Sabhan, after accusing him of being “troublesome” and turning up what it termed “provocative sectarian rhetoric.”

In response, Saudi King Salman summoned Al-Sabhan to Riyadh, but only to name him a Saudi state minister for Arab Gulf affairs, a move seen as emphasising the kingdom’s assertive approach towards Iraq and Iran.

The diplomatic meltdown underscored the failure of the two governments to force any change in each other’s attitude and their efforts to normalise relations.

The conservative Sunni kingdom’s recent change of heart towards Baghdad’s Shia-led government has therefore raised questions, especially about its motives, timing and most importantly about the kingdom’s overall regional strategy.

Riyadh’s new approach seems to have born of several new mechanisms that are expected to play a major role not only in reshaping Iraq as a unitary state but also in the entire Middle East.

At the top of these factors is retaking Mosul from the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group. Iraqi forces are now inching their way towards liberating the country’s second-largest city from IS terrorists.

The Mosul campaign has not just been about retaking the city from IS, where the group declared its “caliphate” two years ago. Also at stake is the sectarian balance of power on both the Iraqi and regional levels.

Once the city is freed, the Iraqi Shia-led government in Baghdad will certainly hail it as a victory and the power of Shia groups in Iraq will grow. This will be worrying to Iraq’s Sunni neighbours, who fear not only the Shia rise but also that of Iran.

With fears of such a widening imbalance growing, Saudi Arabia may find it appropriate to abandon its hostility towards Iraq’s Shia-led government and adopt a more conciliatory game plan to stem Iran’s influence in the country.

Saudi Arabia could have finally accepted the de facto domination of Iraq’s Shia Arabs and may think it can find common ground with them to contain Iran’s influence.

The second factor behind Riyadh’s new approach seems to be the much-talked-about new American strategy to curtail Iran’s power. Saudi Arabia will hope that US President Donald Trump’s combative approach towards Iran will cause more trouble to the Islamic regime and force it to back down on increasing its regional power.

Like many other analysts, Saudi policy-makers probably think that by coming out swinging against Iran, Trump will try to test Tehran through its proxy engagements in countries such as Iraq and Yemen.

While Trump has begun turning his attention to the anti-Saudi Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen, there are also increasing signs that he is making Tehran feel the heat in Iraq.

In his first telephone conversation with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abbadi following his inauguration in January, Trump spoke about the “Iranian threats” to Iraq.

Moreover, US military commanders have been indicating that the Trump administration may be planning to keep the US presence in Iraq post-IS or even send a large number of troops to the region in line with Trump’s promise to speed up the fight against IS.

Saudi Arabia will probably hope that by “putting Iran on notice” the US will be able to weaken Iran and make it stay away from backing its Shia allies in Iraq.

In addition, Saudi Arabia will hope that the Trump administration will try to foster a political settlement in Iraq as part of an expected UN-backed plan for stabilisation and reconciliation.

Saudi Arabia will hope that such a plan will require the kingdom, more than other regional powers, to use its religious, political and financial leverage to help Iraqi Sunni Arabs to shift power in their favour in Iraq.

One suggested idea is that the kingdom with other oil-rich Gulf nations should generously support a reconstruction programme to rebuild the Sunni provinces of Iraq that have been destroyed by the military campaign against IS.

Many of the Saudi diplomatic gestures towards Iraq’s Shia-led government also seem to be associated with the shrinking Saudi leadership in energy geopolitics and regional strategy.

While oil prices drop and new Middle East energy dynamics to a large extent have restricted Saudi power, the country’s regional clout has been diminishing as Iran, Turkey and Russia are all expanding their influence.   

Nowhere is such a diminishing Saudi role as evident as it is in Syria, Yemen and Lebanon where the kingdom has invested enormous amounts of money and diplomatic efforts in promoting its political and religious influence.

Moreover, a Saudi-Egyptian rift in recent months has cast shadows over the kingdom’s ability to build a larger Sunni alliance that would back Riyadh’s regional policies.

Over the last few months, relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia have deteriorated after Cairo forged an independent strategy in Syria that contradicts Riyadh’s anti-Al-Assad policy and showed reluctance to support Saudi Arabia militarily in Yemen.

Tensions increased further when the Saudi company Aramco said it had suspended its oil shipments to Egypt. The news came after the two countries had signed a $23 billion deal under which Aramco had promised to deliver 700,000 tons of petroleum products to Egypt every month for the next five years.

Cairo’s response has been to seek oil from Iraq on favourable terms. It has also initialled agreements with Iraq to expand oil, trade and tourism cooperation.

Saudi Arabia will not be comfortable with improving relations between Iraq and Egypt amid bigger Saudi worries of drastic geopolitical shifts if Cairo also improves its ties with Tehran.

While it is not clear what Saudi Arabia intends to do in Iraq after its recent diplomatic gestures, its power to influence events in the country is slight.

If the desired effect is to get Iran to back down, the kingdom will certainly fail in its efforts, at least in the short term. Saudi Arabia left Iraq to fall into Iran’s lap for 14 years, and Riyadh might now find it difficult to gain support for its newly assertive approach towards Baghdad.

Saudi Arabia’s ability to patch things up with the Iraqi Shia is low, and it will decline further when Mosul is retaken. This leaves the heavyweight kingdom with few good options for helping Iraq. But doing nothing will be even worse.

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