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What is behind the Iraqi-Saudi thaw?
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 10 - 08 - 2017

On 30 July, the prominent Iraqi Shia leader Muqtada Al-Sadr made a visit to Saudi Arabia where he met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, becoming the first Iraqi Shia leader to do so since Bin Salman became second in line to the throne of the oil-rich kingdom in June.
Al-Sadr's trip is the symbolic culmination of a process of reconciliation that the two countries began in June following a landmark visit by Iraqi Shia Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi to Saudi Arabia and his talks with Saudi monarch King Salman bin Abdel-Aziz.
Since then, senior Iraqi and Saudi officials have exchanged visits, paving the way for a rapprochement between the two countries. Among the issues brought up during the talks have been security cooperation, combatting terrorism, trade and investment. Ideas for new border crossings and new roads and railway lines have also been on the agenda.
Baghdad and Riyadh have thus seemed to have finally moved towards shoring up bilateral relations amid vocal differences on sensitive issues largely centred on rising regional sectarian politics and aspirations since the fall of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime in 2003.
Riyadh restored diplomatic relations with Baghdad in 2015 after a 25-year hiatus. It had severed diplomatic ties and closed its Baghdad mission after Saddam's invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
The kingdom then joined the United States and other Western countries in tightening up the UN sanctions regime and diplomatic efforts to isolate Saddam's regime. After Saddam's fall, Riyadh kept its embassy in Baghdad closed as tensions between the conservative Sunni kingdom and Iraq's new Shia rulers grew increasingly tense.
Saudi Arabia then remained sceptical of the new Shia-led government in Iraq, which it considered to be sectarian and pro-Iranian, Tehran being its main regional rival.
Iraq has welcomed the recent Saudi gestures to restore diplomatic relations, expressing hopes that they will end the kingdom's containment policy. However, a fully-fledged rapprochement to end the two-and-a-half decade freeze between the two countries may not be on the cards.
Soon after he started his mission in Baghdad, Riyadh's Ambassador to Iraq Thamer Al-Sabhan, a former army officer, began irritating Iraqi officials by making statements seen by Iraqi Shia politicians as provocative.
He also resorted to social networks to make online statements asserting the kingdom's traditional policy of confronting the influence of Shia Iran, as well as that of Iraqi Shia militant groups and political parties that Riyadh considers to be Iranian proxies.
In October 2016, Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Adel Al-Jubeir sparked uproar in Baghdad when he described Iraq's Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF) as a “sectarian militia organisation” with affiliations to Iran.
Saudi Arabia's top diplomat also accused the predominately Shia PMF of causing problems and divisions, and committing ethnic crimes against civilians in different areas of Iraq.
In general, the overall Saudi policy since 2003 has showed that the regional Sunni powerhouse has hitherto resisted the idea of accepting Shia groups allied to Iran to be in control of neighbouring Iraq.
Now it is not clear whether the Saudi overtures towards Iraq's Shia groups are a change of heart or just a new tactic, though the conventional wisdom on Riyadh's policy remains that its preferred approach is to contain Iran's influence in Iraq.
By leaning towards Baghdad, however, Riyadh is trying to send multiple messages that it wants to abandon its old policy of ostracising the Shia-led regime and help the Iraqi Shias to loosen ties with Iran.
In addition to working to curb, or at least to weaken, Iran's political and ideological influence in Iraq, Saudi Arabia also wishes to see Iran-backed Shia militias that may pose security threats to its borders contained.
Saudi Arabia is also concerned about Iraq's critical attitude towards Saudi foreign policy aims to confront Iran's growing influence in the Middle East and Gulf region.
Unsurprisingly, the Saudi overture is not unrelated to the Trump administration's bids to push back against Tehran, breaking with Barack Obama's engagement strategy with Iran.
On 21 July, US envoy to the global coalition to counter terrorism Brett McGurk retweeted a post by the US Central Command which reported that an “important” trilateral meeting in Baghdad between US, Iraqi and Saudi military commanders had focussed on “military cooperation” and “regional stability and security.”
The disclosure came during a landmark visit by general Abdel-Rahman Saleh Al-Bunyan, the Saudi army chief of staff, to Baghdad, amid reports of bilateral agreements on exchanging intelligence and security information on counter-terrorism between the two countries.
But while Saudi Arabia may be moving closer to the Iraqi Shia leadership, there is still a mountain of unfinished business that the two governments need to address if the bilateral relationship is to become genuinely close.
Fitful Iraqi and Saudi attempts to strike a new tone in relations had faced many obstacles in the past, primarily the different and contradictory expectations each government has of the other.
While Riyadh hopes to see the Iraqi Shia groups as friends and expects them to cut their close ties with Iran, Baghdad expects the Saudi government to respect the status quo and to help reintegrate disgruntled Iraqi Sunnis into the new order.
Therefore, the biggest challenge to any improvement in Saudi-Iraqi relations remains the changing regional environment that puts Iran at a geostrategic advantage, including in its increasing influence in Iraq.
Iran will expect different things from any improvement in relations between Baghdad and Riyadh, hoping that this will not impact on its dramatic rise as a regional power.
Iran will continue to look to Iraq as the main gateway of its regional supremacy and will consider any attempt to stifle its influence in Iraq as a cause for concern.
While Iranian officials have remained largely tight-lipped about the Saudi-Iraqi normalisation, some elements in the Islamic regime in Tehran have cautioned that Riyadh is attempting to court Baghdad's Shia leaders in order to influence Iraqi politics at the expense of Iranian interests.
Iran's cronies in Iraq have also moved to torpedo the Iraqi-Saudi rapprochement.
Baqir Jabar, a senior member of the Iran-backed Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq (SICI), called on Al-Abadi to ask Riyadh to “restore [Iraqi] ownership” of the pipeline used to carry Iraqi crude oil to the Saudi terminal of Yanbu on the Red Sea.
The pipeline was built in the 1980s during the Iraq-Iran War to diversify Iraq's oil-export routes when the two countries were attacking each other's tankers in the Arabian Gulf.
Saudi Arabia shut the pipeline in 1990 after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. But any agreement on reopening the strategic pipeline and resolving other outstanding problems will require a broad consensus on major bilateral and regional issues.

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