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What is Saudi Arabia's end game in Iraq?

The Saudi policy of building ties among Shia politicians has taken advantage of fissures within the Iraqi elite with the goal of undermining Iranian dominance in the country

Saudi Arabia is attempting to mend its historically antagonistic relations with Iraq's Shia, at Iran's expense.

In early November, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman launched a domestic shake-up, as well regionally, ratcheting up tensions with Iran, and sabre-rattling against the Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

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However, as Riyadh seemed to stoke tensions with the region's Shia, there had been a quieter Saudi campaign unfolding to co-opt Iraq's Shia.

While Riyadh has maintained relations with Iraq's Arab Sunni politicians and tribes in the past, beginning in the summer of 2017 it has forged connections with Iraq's Arab Shia political elite as well. In hindsight, this Saudi strategy has sought to undermine the relationship between Shia Iran and its co-religionists in Iraq.

The regional cold war

Emile Hokayem wrote recently in the New York Times that the Saudi crown prince's actions to ratchet up tensions in Yemen and Lebanon are counterproductive. In the Middle East, he writes, "the balance of power is determined in Syria and Iraq".

Saudi Arabia has attempted, belatedly, to project its influence in Iraq. The first major event that signalled the kingdom's return to Iraq occurred in 2015 when it reopened its embassies in Baghdad and in the capital of the Kurdish Regional Government, Erbil, restoring diplomatic relations that had been severed after Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

However, it appeared to take two more years before Riyadh had finally come to terms with a Shia-led government in Baghdad, and open up a dialogue on the official, bilateral level in 2017. The thaw in this relationship was represented by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi visiting Riyadh in June on a Middle East tour that also included Iran and Kuwait.

Mohammed bin Salman (right) and Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Jeddah (AFP)
This visit was a high-profile meeting between Iraq's Shia head-of-state and the Saudi monarchy. However, what was more surprising over the summer was the semi-official Saudi-Shia diplomacy that ensued.

Saudi-Iraqi Shia diplomacy

In mid-July, Iraqi Interior Minister Qasim al-Araji visited Saudi Arabia to discuss security and intelligence cooperation, as well as easing visa restrictions for Iraqis wanting to visit Saudi Arabia for pilgrimage. Al-Araji belongs to the Badr Organisation, an armed political faction in Iraq that has very close ties to Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional rival.

A few weeks later, Iraqi Shia leader Muqtada Sadr, who holds no official position in the Iraqi government, visited Mohammed bin Salman, a meeting which may have encouraged Riyadh to open land and air links with Iraq.

Sadr's visit served his own domestic political agenda. He had criticised Iran's influence on Iraq's domestic politics, and further challenged Tehran's sway in Iraq when he called for the demobilisation of the Iraqi Shia militias, many of which serve as Iranian proxies.

Saudi Arabia's attempt to engage in dialogue with Sadr serve as Riyadh's attempt to placate the Iraqi Shi’a leader’s response to domestic Saudi affairs

Thus, his interests do have resonance with Saudi foreign policy goals. With Sadr visiting Saudi Arabia, Riyadh was able to send a message to Tehran that it can also forge connections with Iraq’s Shia, depriving the Islamic Republic of hegemonic influence over its Iraqi coreligionists.

Second, an ulterior motive behind forging relations with Iraq's Shia occurred in August, just after these visits. Saudi Arabia had its own domestic crisis as it deployed military forces into the predominantly Shia town of Awamiya, destroying much of the old city in the process. 

Shias make up around 15 percent of Saudi Arabia's population, but they reside primarily in the eastern, oil-rich al-Hasa province on the Gulf.

Iraq's Shia, including Sadr, were vocally critical of Saudi Arabia's military deployment to Bahrain in 2011, to quell protests led by both Bahraini Shia and opposition Sunnis on the island. Sadr also denounced the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a Shia religious figure from Awamiya, on 2 January 2017.

Saudi Arabia’s attempt to engage in dialogue with Sadr serve as Riyadh’s attempt to placate the Iraqi Shi’a leader's response to domestic Saudi affairs.

Amidst this diplomatic campaign Saudi Arabia reopened its border crossing with Iraq in August, closed for 27 years since the Gulf crisis, and resumed direct flights to Baghdad.

Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi attends the Arab League summit in Jordan on 29 March (Reuters)
Last week Saudi Arabia invited 100 Iraqi businessmen to visit Riyadh, part of a joint economic and coordination council, the first of its kind in the relations between the two countries.

The timing of these initiatives raises the question of what is the Saudi end game in improving the relations with Iraq’s Shia political elite.

A regional hegemon

Saudi Arabia has always sought to project itself as a regional hegemon claiming to protect the interests of a Sunni bloc in the region. With the blockade against Qatar, a fellow Gulf Arab Sunni neighbour, Riyadh has undermined the very alliance which it claims to lead.

Iran has taken advantage of these bilateral tensions by aiding Qatar during the blockade. While Iran is able to enhance its regional posturing via these intra-Sunni tensions, Saudi Arabia appears to be seeking out fissures in the relationship between Tehran and Iraq's Shia.

Despite this new round of diplomacy, Riyadh cannot compete with Iranian influence in Iraq. In addition to the vast network of Iranian-supported militias, Iran can offer financial largesse to parties and candidates in Iraq's upcoming parliamentary elections in 2018.

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While Saudi Arabia does have financial resources at its disposal, it does not have the organisational links to Iraq's other Shia parties. Additionally, it is unlikely that any Iraqi Shia politician will accept Saudi aid in an election for fear of alienating voters.

Rather, the recalibration of Saudi policy to Iraq's Shia is most likely to make Iran feel uncomfortable.

Iran has been able to undermine the Qatar blockade, and undo Saudi aspirations in Syria and Yemen. From the Saudi perspective, courting Iraq's Shia politicians is one of the few remaining options the kingdom has in a regional cold war that it is escalating. It is also a sign that Riyadh is beginning to realise that it is losing that war.

- Ibrahim al-Marashi is Associate Professor of Middle East History at California State University San Marcos. His publications include: Iraq's Armed Forces: An Analytical History (2008), The Modern History of Iraq (2017), and A Concise History of the Middle East (forthcoming).

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye. 

Photo: Shia Popular Mobilisation Forces celebrate on the outskirts of Kirkuk (Reuters).

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.