In Iraq, an Opening for the Saudis

Thomas W. Lippman

The appointment of Haidar al-Abadi as prime minister of Iraq gives Saudi Arabia an opportunity to end its futile and counterproductive ostracism of its northern neighbor, and the Saudis appear prepared to seize it.

Assuming that Abadi is able to form a government and take office, he will succeed Nouri al-Maliki, with whom Riyadh has long refused to have any dealings. King Abdullah loathes Maliki, not because he is Shia but because he believed Maliki lied to him at the start of his tenure eight years ago when he promised to run an inclusive government that would be responsive to Iraq’s Sunni minority. The Saudis have publicly blamed Maliki for the sectarian strife that has undermined Iraq’s stability and for the rise of the Islamic State, the heavily armed radical Sunni group that has taken over large portions of northern Iraq and is still on the march.

The fact that Abadi, like Maliki, is Shia — a subgroup within Islam that Saudis generally scorn — does not automatically preclude Saudi support. When Maliki ran for a second term in 2010, Saudi Arabia supported a Shia rival, former premier Iyad Allawi, also Shia. From Riyadh’s perspective, Abadi is entitled to the benefit of the doubt in Riyadh simply because he is not Maliki, whom King Abdullah regarded as a virtual stooge of Iran.

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, Prince Saud al-Faisal, said at a news conference that Abadi’s appointment was “good news.”

Riyadh’s hostility to Maliki has had negative consequences for both countries. Saudi Arabia and Iraq have nominal diplomatic relations, but the kingdom has refused to open an embassy in Baghdad, creating a vacuum of influence that was inevitably filled by Iran. On the Iraqi side, there has been very little Saudi private investment; the countries share hundreds of miles of border, but the Saudi rulers have regarded that as a danger because they fear infiltration of jihadists who will go after them. Rather than try to engage with Iraq, the Saudis have sent troops to secure the border and staged the largest military exercise in their history nearby in a show of force.

The selection of Abadi was welcomed, if not engineered, by Iran, Saudi Arabia’s feared rival for regional supremacy. Under other circumstances, that might make him unpalatable to Riyadh, but the rise of the Islamic State has given Riyadh and Tehran a powerful reason to work together, at least until the threat recedes or is beaten back.

Iran is deeply hostile to the Islamic State because it originated as an armed force dedicated to the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom Iran supports, and because it presents a challenge to Shia-dominance of Iraq. For the Saudis, the Islamic State represents a security threat — it is an ideological offshoot of al-Qaeda, the first target of which was the Saudi monarchy — but also a religious threat.

The official religion of Saudi Arabia is a conservative brand of Sunni Islam, based on the Hanbali school of Sharia law, generally known to outsiders as Wahhabism. The King’s official title, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, reflects the Saudi view that its stewardship of Mecca, Medina, and the annual Muslim pilgrimage, gives it a position of primacy among the believers. When the Islamic State proclaimed itself a caliphate — a trans-national state whose leader wields the same temporal authority over the Islamic community as did the Prophet Muhammad in his lifetime — it was a rash and presumptuous move guaranteed to infuriate the Saudi rulers. The caliphate was abolished after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and even the Saudis, who have controlled Mecca and Medina for a century, have never had the audacity to claim the position.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has said he wants to lessen tensions with Saudi Arabia. It may not be possible to improve relations across the board until the issue of the Iranian nuclear program is resolved and the Saudis see an end to what they regard as pro-Shia Iranian meddling all around the region; the Saudis remain just as dedicated to the ouster of Syria’s Assad as the Iranians do to the preservation of his regime. But meanwhile, in the ever-more-complicated regional power struggle, Tehran and Riyadh could work together to stabilize Iraq and confront the Islamic State.

Maliki’s position had become untenable, and the Iranians apparently concluded last month that he would have to go. News reports in the region said they sent an emissary to Saudi Arabia to talk about the possibility of a successor. Now, according to Mehdi Noorbaksh of Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, “It is very obvious that Haidar al-Abadi is acceptable to both.” He will need all the help the two rivals can give him.

Photo: Haider al-Abadi was named Iraq’s new prime minister by Iraqi president Fuad Masum on Aug. 11, 2014.

Thomas Lippman

Thomas W. Lippman is a Washington-based author and journalist who has written about Middle Eastern affairs and American foreign policy for more than four decades, specializing in Saudi Arabian affairs, U.S.- Saudi relations, and relations between the West and Islam. He is a former Middle East bureau chief of the Washington Post, and also served as that newspaper's oil and energy reporter. Throughout the 1990s, he covered foreign policy and national security for the Post, traveling frequently to Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East. In 2003 he was the principal writer on the war in Iraq for Prior to his work in the Middle East, he covered the Vietnam war as the Washington Post's bureau chief in Saigon. Lippman has authored seven books about the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy. He is also an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, where he serves as the principal media contact on Saudi Arabia and U.S. – Saudi relations.



  1. Interesting take on this subject. As with every change, time will tell who is right and who is not.

  2. This is one of the very few blogs worth following. One always learns something from it.
    This article explains why – so far – local elites like the Iranian imams and Saud family have not engaged in military activity to stabilise Iraq. Clearly, they prefer to witness a change of regime leadership in Iraq before getting directly involved. They will obviously be co-ordinating their actions pre- and post-change to achieve the one objective they both share: dumping IS.
    Oh what a tangled web is weaved…….

  3. Al Maliki’s departure appearing like a defeat is a good pretext to look for new alliances. Saudi Arabia is in a long war of influence against Turkey and Qatar. Saudi Arabia won back Egypt, after it was temporary held by Qatar. It has taken the leadership of the SNC, the political wing of the Syrian opposition away from Qatar. In Libya it is financing anti-Moslem Brotherhood General Hiftar. In Lebanon the return of their protege Hariri Jr is a sign that Saudi Arabia is ready to deal with its arch enemy Hezbollah.
    Turkey has been a threat the Saudis religious supremacy for Sunnis in the region. Iran has been a threat as it promotes another brand of Islam that do not recognize Saudi Arabia as Islam leadership. But now Saudi Arabia is more worried by the religious competition the Sunni ISIS is exerting with success in the region.. Therefore it is changing its priorities, reviewing its tactical alliances and revising its short and medium time goals.
    Toppling Bashar al Assad seems to be now a very low priority , therefore Saudi Arabia has been cutting the funds that support the FSA and the Islamist fighters. This had an immediate effect. Most fighters moved to ISIS that offer better salaries and weakened the rebels, but it has also reenforced ISIS and caused more threats to Saudi Arabia.
    Bashar al Assad seems to be now turning an ally against ISIS, while the opposition that has brought the Islamist extremists is an enemy that should cease to exist.
    Will Saudi Arabia try to make the Syrian opposition to collapse thus allowing the Syrian army and the US to destroy ISIS in their its nest in Syria.
    Are we going to see a rapprochement Saudi Arabia-Iraq-Syria?

  4. Well at least Maliki is finally gone so that’s progress. And it’s encouraging to see some potential bridge building across sectarian lines. It’s amazing to me how much of that region’s troubles stem simply from religious differences within Islam and its various sects. When religious theocracies like Iran and dynastic tribal countries like Saudi Arabia clash, there are no winners, only losers from the civilians caught in the cross fire.

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