by Maya Yang
In late July, the Iraqi Shi’ite cleric and leader of the Sadrist movement, Muqtada al-Sadr, paid an official visit to Saudi Arabia for the first time in 11 years. Sadr’s visit was preceded by the visit of Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Adel al Jubeir to Iraq back in February, followed by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s visit to Riyadh in June and eventually the visit of Qasim al-Araji, Iraq’s interior minister, which occurred in the same month as Sadr’s visit. These diplomatic engagements suggest a potential new Arab partnership in the Middle East.
If the two countries are indeed working towards a rapprochement, a key reason is the shifting Shi’ite politics in Iraq that have compelled the country to redirect its foreign policy towards some of its Sunni neighbors at the expense of Iran.
Muqtada al-Sadr has historically been one of the few Shi’ite clerics known to maintain an “Iraq-first” policy. He was the first Shi’ite cleric in the country to call for the resignation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, voicing his opposition towards Iran and its support for certain Shi’ite militias in Iraq. In addition to Sadr’s anti-Iranian sentiments, other Iraqi clerics such as Ammar Hakim and Jalal al-Saghir left their posts in the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a pro-Iranian faction. Such moves away from Iran come amid growing speculation over the successor of Iraq’s aging Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Clerics such as Sadr oppose the notion of Iran’s decision-making role in selecting Iraq’s next spiritual leader.
Similarly, with Iraq’s upcoming provincial and national elections next year, many parties, such as Sadr’s, are trying to present themselves as nationalist and able to rise above the sectarian identities that have fragmented the country. By repeatedly calling for Iraq’s pivot away from Iran, Sadr is able to resonate with the Shi’ite communities in Iraq that oppose Iran’s ubiquitous Shi’ite presence in the country. At the same time, by visiting Sunni countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Sadr and Prime Minister Abadi seek to convey the impression that they can help improve the conditions of the Sunnis, all of whom have been marginalized since the second Iraq war. In fact, after Sadr’s meeting in Saudi Arabia, the latter promised the Iraqi cleric $10 million to set up a new Saudi consulate in the country, a symbolic nod towards the disenfranchised Sunni communities. Furthermore, by securing such a deal from the Gulf, which can be used to finance reparations in destroyed cities such as Mosul, Sadr is able to further advance his political image as someone who can improve all aspects of the nation.
Nonetheless, certain political figures in the country still see Iran as a more reliable ally than Saudi Arabia. In mid-August, Majid al-Nasrawi, the Iraqi governor of Basra, fled to Iran after facing corruption charges and resigning from his post. The Shi’ite politician justified his resignation by explaining that he has been unfairly pressured by those “associated with political factions,” likely referring to parties such as Sadr’s that largely operate independently from the Iranian-dominated Shia sphere.
Unsurprisingly, the Sadrist community has criticized Nasrawi’s escape, with one Sadrist spokesperson even accusing other government officials of colluding with Iranians to facilitate his escape. Mazin al-Mazini stated, “Nasrawi did not flee, he was smuggled to Iran. His escape came after he was tipped off by his accomplices in both Basra and Baghdad.” Nasrawi’s escape is only one of many examples of Iraqi Shiite politicians who are still partial towards Iran and its policies, thus driving a wedge between themselves and the more independent and nationalistic parties in the country. Hence, their inclination towards Iran complicates the growing relations between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, as many of them would oppose such development. Furthermore, since these politicians remain Iranian loyalists, they can easily allow Iran to continue extending its influence over the country by serving as mouthpieces or directly carrying out its policies in the country.
Another factor drives Iraq to largely turn towards its Sunni neighbors for potential re-alliances: the changing dynamics in US foreign policy in the region. As the Trump administration adopts an increasingly confrontational stance towards Iran, Iraq is strategically distancing itself from its eastern hegemonic neighbor and investigating other political options. Such examples include Iraq’s most recent implication of Iran in the 2006 bombing of a Shi’ite shrine in Samarra, a Sunni-majority city just north of Baghdad. Awad al-Awadi, an Iraqi MP stated on Diljah TV this month, “Take for example what happened in Samarra, many reports have revealed that there were interests, there were terrorist cells and groups that came in from Iran.” Since the attacks, numerous WikiLeaks reports have pointed to Iran’s involvement in the bombing as it supplied al-Qaeda members with various explosives at that time.
As for Saudi Arabia, the kingdom’s outreach to Shiite communities that do not necessarily endorse Iranian projects in their countries is a way of isolating the eastern hegemon. By appealing to groups such as Sadr’s, Saudi Arabia is able to offer itself as a politically viable option to these Shi’ite communities and nations that seek to detach themselves from the Iranian Shiite identity. Mohammed bin Salman, who recently became the kingdom’s crown prince, has been supporting a potential rapprochement with Shia in Iraq, if only for geostrategic reasons. Since the 2003 war, major Shi’ite militias in Iraq have been carrying out murderous rampages on the displaced Sunni populations, often times under the blind eye of the Saudi government. According to Sadr’s spokesperson, Salah al-Obeidi, Mohamed bin Salman admitted during Sadr’s visit that “mistakes were made in the former Saudi administration” which ultimately “helped Iran dominate Iraq,” and thus expressed his interest in rectifying the status quo.
Since the Gulf crisis emerged in June, Saudi Arabia and its allies have been crafting a clear us-versus-them narrative between themselves and any country they see invested heavily in the Iranian camp and cause. Thus, Riyadh imposed an economic and political blockade on Qatar, which the kingdom accuses of currying favors with Iran. Saudi Arabia’s outreach to clerics such as Sadr, who are highly vocal opponents of Iranian influence in their own country, works conveniently for the kingdom’s own aims. By extending itself to foreign figures whom it sees as potential forces to successfully challenge Iranian influence, Saudi Arabia is able to effectively exploit the anti-Iranian Shi’ite communities in Iraq. At the same time, it can play the heroic role of a much-needed mediator between the long-divided Shi’ite and Sunni communities of Iraq.
During a visit to Jeddah by Iraqi Oil Minister Jabar al-Luaibi last month, both sides discussed potential Saudi and Iraqi cooperation on tapping into Iraq’s massive mineral reserves, swaths of fertile land, and oil fields. One of the major projects both countries have been discussing is the reopening of an Iraqi-Saudi pipeline previously been used to export Iraqi oil into the kingdom. This may prove to be very useful for either country, should Iran one day decide to live up to its 2011 threat of blocking the Strait of Hormuz through which 40 percent of the world’s oil exports passes.
Luaibi predicted that bilateral investments may exceed “tens of billions of dollars,” thus increasing cash flow into a country that has had its major cities devastated by wars and more recently, by the battles of the Iraqi military against Islamic State strongholds. Iraq fully understands that it is in dire need of financial assistance. Hence, it is only logical for Baghdad to turn towards wealthy Sunni Gulf countries with which it shares an Arab identity.
Additionally, 27 years after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, Riyadh and Baghdad agreed to reopen crossings along their 505-mile border. As Iraq’s security situation intensified this summer with the fight against the Islamic State, Saudi Arabia ramped up its own security, sending over 30,000 of its own soldiers to the border. Despite the heavy presence of military troops on either side, trade activities could grow due to the border’s reopening. Citizens will be permitted to cross over for visits, and joint coordination centers will be established to prevent smuggling and facilitate smooth exchanges of information between both countries. Iraqi Minister of Transportation Kadhim al-Hamami also predicted the possibility of rail links being reopened, stating that this “would unleash economic activity between the two countries… and improve the movement of goods between the two countries.”
Nonetheless, this recent rapprochement faces multiple challenges, including the need to convince skeptical conservative groups on either side the benefits of such warming relations. In addition, Saudi Arabia should show caution especially when engaging with Iraqi Shi’ite clerics such as Sadr who are known for their nationalist stances and opposition towards foreign influence in their countries. At the same time, Iraq must be mindful of the Shi’ite communities that make up the majority of the country’s religious demographics.
The question remains whether Saudi Arabia’s attempt to bring Iraq back into the Arab fold will bridge divides in the region—or simply intensify them.
Maya Yang is a contributor to Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. Photo: Iraqi Oil Minister Jabar al-Luaibi meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman