by Thomas W. Lippman
In the unending panorama of violence that is today’s Middle East, one hopeful note emerged earlier this month with a low-key announcement from Saudi Arabia that drew scant attention from the American news media.
King Salman appointed a military officer, Gen. Thamer al-Sabhan, to be the kingdom’s first resident ambassador in Baghdad since Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990.
If the appointment is a signal of a warming of relations between the two oil-producing Arab neighbors after decades of estrangement, it may remove a lingering irritant to the region’s troubled sectarian politics.
History of Stormy Relations
In Saddam Hussein’s time, members of Iraq’s Sunni Muslim minority dominated the Baghdad government and armed forces. The Saudis consider themselves the leaders of Sunni Islam worldwide, but they regarded Saddam Hussein as a menace and stayed clear of him for years after Operation Desert Storm in 1991. The ouster of Saddam Hussein only exacerbated the estrangement because it brought to power a new regime dominated by Shia Muslims and backed by Shiite Iran, Saudi Arabia’s great rival for regional influence and power.
Nominal diplomatic relations resumed a few years ago. Saudi Arabia appointed an ambassador, but he lived in Amman and rarely visited Baghdad, where there was no Saudi embassy. The late King Abdullah loathed Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, whom he viewed as a stooge of Iran and a liar who had falsely promised him that he would run an inclusive government and treat the Sunni population fairly. Maliki did exactly the opposite, marginalizing the Sunnis in political, economic and military affairs. The Saudis accused him of fomenting the sectarian strife that has overrun the region and precipitating the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), a Sunni extremist group that Saudi Arabia sees as a direct threat.
The result was that Saudi Arabia, against the advice of the United States, forfeited nearly all influence in Iraq, leaving a vacuum of diplomacy and economic investment that Iraq was happy to fill. Not only did Riyadh shun Maliki’s Iraq, it built a long security fence to seal the desert border.
These tensions began to ease last year when Haider al-Abadi replaced Maliki as prime minister. The fact that Abadi, like Maliki, is a Shiite—a subgroup within Islam that Saudis generally scorn–did not automatically preclude Saudi support. When Maliki ran for a second term in 2010, Saudi Arabia supported a Shiite rival, former premier Iyad Allawi. From Riyadh’s perspective, Abadi was entitled to the benefit of the doubt in Riyadh simply because he was not Maliki.
When Abadi’s selection was announced, King Abdullah promptly sent a congratulatory message saying he “prayed to God Almighty to grant him success in restoring cohesion among the Iraqi people, preserving the unity of Iraq, and achieving security and stability in Iraq,” the official Saudi Press Agency reported. The Saudi foreign minister at the time, Prince Saud al-Faisal, said at a news conference that Abadi’s appointment was “good news.” Now rapprochement is a bit closer at hand.
Not much about Gen. al-Sabhan is known to outsiders. Saudi military officers who are not princes of the ruling family generally avoid publicity. His previous assignment was military attaché in Beirut, indicating an intelligence background. He has not had any previous diplomatic post, which provoked some criticism of his appointment within Iraq.
One commentator, Salah al-Arbawi, called on the Iraqi government not to accept the appointment, complaining that the general “has never had any post in the Saudi foreign service and has no diplomatic experience. He’s just a military officer.” Such comments have apparently had little effect.
Obviously one royal appointment to a single post will have little immediate impact on the region’s sectarian wars. Even as al-Sabhan prepares to take up his post, Saudi warplanes are striking positions in Yemen held by Shiite rebels there known as Houthis, and Iraqi Shiite militias are fighting Sunni elements of IS in Iraq. But any good news is welcome in that part of the world, and it could indicate that Saudi Arabia and Iraq, both under new leaders since last summer, will find ways to be helpful to each other for a change.
Madawi al-Rasheed, a dissident Saudi academic who lives in Britain, noted in Al Monitor that the Saudis need to do more than send an ambassador—they have to recognize that Iraq’s Shiites are not just some indistinguishable bloc of hostile rivals whose political ascendancy is illegitimate. If Saudi Arabia wants to help the Sunni people of Iraq, she wrote, it “can best serve their real interest by engaging those multiple voices on the other side of the Iraqi divide. Its policy in Iraq should seek a modus operandi with the Iraqi government and reach out to other Shiite voices in Iraq who have had a long history of calling for an end to the sectarian policies of the post-2003 Iraqi governments.” Perhaps the new government in Riyadh under King Salman—which seems to be sincere in its pledge to stamp out sectarian violence against its own Shiite minority—can rise to the occasion.