Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

Saudi Reset with Iraq

Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

Saudi Reset with Iraq

Article excerpt


Saudi Arabia seems to have completely overhauled and reset policy vis-a-vis Iraq. This inevitable shift in policy has taken place much to the dismay of Iran. The visit of Iraqi Shi'i leader Muqtada Sadr to Saudi Arabia in July 2017 was not only an unpleasant surprise for Tehran but also a symbol of a paradigmatic shift in Saudi foreign policy.[1 ]

Hitherto, Saudi Arabia espoused a sectarian domestic and foreign policy. The Saudis naturally supported the oppressed Sunnis of Iraq just as they continue to be vehemently hostile to Saudi Shi'a in the province of Qatif.[2] Yet as Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman increases his influence, one can feel the wind of change blowing in every direction-from the role of women in Saudi society to Sunni-Shi'a relations. Aware of the fact that the Shi'a comprise the majority of Arabs in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies have come to understand that a sectarian policy would inevitably be counterproductive. Iraq remains an important Arab country for the Saudis, and the KSA is eager to extract it from the orbit of Iran's influence.


Muqtada Sadr's summer 2017 visit to Riyadh created an uproar in Iran. Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Bahram Qassemi reacted by commenting that Iraq was an independent country that did not require Iranian approval for a visit abroad by one of its leaders.[3]Clearly this was only a formal diplomatic response, as the media in Iran revealed how the Islamic republic really felt about al-Sadr's visit.Kayhan, the Supreme leader's mouthpiece, accused Sadr of having "sold himself to Al Saud."[4] Of course Iran has accused Saudi Arabia of supporting the Islamic State and has blamed it for the instability in Iraq. Last, Iran advised Muqtada to stay away from politics and to gain more experience.

For the Saudis and the UAE, Muqtada Sadr is an ideal ally. Despite his impressive Shi'i clerical pedigree, al-Sadr is not a religious authority. Still, he is undoubtedly a powerful informal leader for many Iraqi Shi'a. Most important for the Saudis is Sadr's staunch opposition to Iran and Iranian influence; his clear stance against sectarian hatred is no less important to them. Sadr has always positioned himself as an Iraqi Arab leader who remains above the fray of the murderous sectarian feud, and he has refused to send his people to fight in Syria on behalf of Iran. As a result, his loyal forces have suffered from a financial deficit. The financial factor may well have influenced al-Sadr's decision to turn to the Sunni Saudis, who are ready to sponsor his militia in exchange for their anti-Iranian stance.

In early August 2017, al-Sadr made some statements that further fueled Iran's growing fear. Sadr urged Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi to "integrate the disciplined PMF (the Popular Mobilization Forces, al-Hashd al-Sha'abi) members into the Armed Forces, seize the arsenal of PMF factions, and keep weapons exclusively in the hands of the state."[5] This demand was, however, immediately rejected by PMF Spokesman Ahmad al-Asadi and the prime minister, both of whom argue that the PMF is already part of the Iraqi Armed Forces. [6] Though this conglomerate of militias was created ad hoc in response to Ayatollah Sistani's fatwa to fight the Islamic State, the PMF is Iranian-backed, trained, and sponsored. Sadr has equally urged the Iraqis to fight corruption and implement reforms.

All this annoys Iran, because Sadr has a genuine base of support within Iraq's Shi'i community, and this has obstructed Iranian efforts in Iraq. As for officials in Baghdad, even pro-Iranian Iraqi politicians have not openly criticized Sadr for his pro-Sunni moves. In fact, they have been trying to woo Tehran. To " counterbalance" Sadr's visit to Saudi Arabia, Iraqi Interior Minister Qasim al-A'araji traveled to Tehran, where he announced that Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman had requested that Iraq serve as a mediator between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and Iran. …

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