How Saudi Arabia Is Stepping Up in Iraq

An Improvement in Bilateral Ties Has Been Long Overdue

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets with Iraqi Shiite leader Muqtada al Sadr in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 2017. Bandar Algaloud / REUTERS

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 (MBS) 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.

As an Iraqi leader, Sadr has typically taken a hard nationalist—and sometimes even Shiite chauvinist—line. And although his relationship with Tehran is complicated owing to his independent power base and occasional appeal to a sense of Iraqi patriotism, he has been a critical Iranian ally for most of the post-Saddam Hussein era. His militia, Saraya al-Salam, continues to receive extensive support from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. For all those reasons, his meeting with the Saudis, Iran’s traditional Arab Sunni nemesis, was a surprise, to say the least.

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. Washington has been trying in vain since 2003 to convince the Saudis and other Gulf states that they have a vital role to play in Iraq’s stability and geopolitical realignment, and that dissing the Iraqis would simply drive the country’s Shiites into the arms of the Iranians and its Sunnis into the arms of terrorist

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