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

How Saudi Arabia Is Stepping Up in Iraq

An Improvement in Bilateral Ties Has Been Long Overdue

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 groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State (or ISIS).

For the past 14 years, the Kingdom has kept its distance, believing that Iraq was already lost to the Iranians—and that if it weren’t, it was the United States’ job to fix the problems it created with its invasion. But MBS has been willing to reassess old policies and compete in areas where the Kingdom has previously ceded the field. Some have criticized the new approach as being occasionally too muscular, particularly in the case of Yemen. Yet this opening to Shiite leaders in Iraq suggests that the Saudis are also capable of playing a subtler political game and reaching across the sectarian divide when required.

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. Neither the United States nor the deeply suspicious Sunni Arab states would help, forcing the moderate leader to turn back to Iran.

Saudi Arabia’s more forward leaning posture could give Iraqi Sunnis confidence to bargain with the Shiites in Baghdad.

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—and they are terrified that Iraq could become the designated battlefield for the next Saudi-Iranian proxy war—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.

The hard part for the United States will be to resist the temptation to assume that a bigger Saudi role in Iraq will allow for a smaller U.S. role. But as important as a better relationship with Saudi Arabia would be for Iraq, Riyadh still cannot replace Washington. Indeed, Saudi support should be seen as enabling the United States to do the things that only it can do: helping the Iraqis reach a new national reconciliation and power-sharing agreement among Sunnis and Shiites, assisting in finding a permanent solution for the status of Iraqi Kurdistan, and diluting Iran’s excessive influence in a strategically important Arab state.

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