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Cover Story, Saudi Affairs

How Saudi Arabia Is Stepping Up in Iraq

An Improvement in Bilateral Ties Has Been Long Overdue


by Firas Maksad, Kenneth M. Pollack

Some of the best news to come from the Middle East in a long time is the recent and long-overdue improvement in relations between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. It started in February, when Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir visited Baghdad—the first such visit since 1990—and continued with a number of subsequent contacts, including a meeting between Iraqi Interior Minister Qasim al-Araji and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on July 19. Most striking of all was when Iraq’s Shiite firebrand cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, traveled to Riyadh for high level talks on improving bilateral ties with the Saudis on July 31.

Although still at an early stage, these meetings have raised the possibility of Saudi willingness to support war-ravaged Iraq, ease commerce and communications between the two countries, and re-open the massive pipelines that run through the Kingdom from Iraq to the Red Sea—built during the Iran-Iraq War but closed after Saddam’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. They also raise the prospect of meaningful Sunni political participation in post-ISIS Iraq. From the perspective of the United States (and Iraq), this can only be good news.

Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has been willing to reassess old policies. Iraq could be a major beneficiary of such a shift, and that would be enormously helpful to U.S. efforts to stabilize the country in the wake of ISIS’ imminent defeat. The Saudis can play an important role in preventing their northern neighbor from sliding back into civil war for a third time. Their influence with Iraq’s Sunni leaders and the tribes from the otherwise restive Anbar Province could help facilitate a political settlement that results in a more representative government in Baghdad.

Saudi Arabia’s opening to the Iraqis is also significant, not only for bilateral relations, but for reintegrating Iraq into its broader Arab environment. Following Sadr’s landmark meeting with the Saudi crown prince, he was invited to the United Arab Emirates, where State Minister for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash announced a new era of engagement between Iraq and Arab Gulf countries. Reading the diplomatic tea leaves, four Arab foreign ministers have visited Baghdad this month.

The psychological and political dimensions of this are of equal importance. Although many Iraqi Shiites have some degree of trust that Iran will support them when no one else will, most don’t like the overbearing nature of Iranian influence and would like to see it diminished. In the past, however, whenever a moderate Shiite leader tried to forge a path apart from Iran, he found it impossible to replace Tehran’s largesse and protection.

Saudi Arabia’s more forward leaning posture could give Iraqi Sunnis confidence to bargain with the Shiites in Baghdad. Knowing that they have a powerful neighbor’s support, they could be more willing to compromise. It should also make them more confident that Shiite hardliners won’t be able to ignore their legitimate demands in areas such as political representation and economic benefits. It could also help them meet the needs of their community after the ravages inflicted by ISIS.

Ultimately, Iraqis don’t want to become Saudi dependents either but the country would love to be able to rely on another powerful regional state to restore balance to its foreign policy. Improved relations with Saudi Arabia before Iraq’s 2018 parliamentary elections could make it easier for Iraqis to support more moderate candidates who could help bridge the sectarian divide, rather than the radicals who have torn the country apart.

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