Saudi Arabia changes its tactic in Iraq

Saudi Arabian Ambassador Thamer al-Sabhan with the Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari on 14 January, 2016
Saudi Arabian Ambassador Thamer al-Sabhan with the Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari on 14 January, 2016

The visit by the leader of the Sadrist movement, Muqtada Al-Sadr, to Saudi Arabia in the midst of the Gulf crisis resulting in a four-country siege on Qatar, and nearly two months after the Riyadh-Islamic-American summit, has raised a number of questions regarding the nature of this visit.

It should be noted that this is the second visit of radical leader of Iraqi Shiites to Saudi Arabia since 2006. He became famous in 2004 as the leader of Shiite paramilitary organization "Mahdi Army", when militants led by him raised an uprising against international occupation forces in the city of Najaf. A few years later he became "great Ayatollah". In 2011 Al-Sadr once again began to participate in political life of Iraq. The fact that Iraqi oppositionist met Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia immediately showed several trends in the current Middle East agenda.

As Middle East Monitor writes in an article "Saudi Arabia in Iraq… What has changed?", this visit is particularly because it did not evolve from the previous visits of Iraqi officials to Saudi Arabia or Saudi officials to Iraq. In 2003, following the US occupation of Iraq, Saudi Arabia decided not to intervene in Iraqi affairs at all. This is with the exception of the Makkah conference that was held for the Iraqi national forces in 2006, and it was nothing more throwing dust in our eyes. While Iran was strengthening its military, political and economic influence in Iraq, Saudi Arabia was tasked with calming the situation in order to further enable Iran to strengthen its position, a matter unknown to Riyadh.

After the American occupation, the Iraqi resistance was formed, initiated by the Iraqi Sunni Muslim forces, at a time when the Najaf reference issued a fatwa prohibiting fighting against the occupier. Despite this, Saudi Arabia did not benefit from the existence of Iraqi Sunni armed forces, but played a negative role in this regard, starting with the media. The media was represented by Al-Arabiya and Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, which demonised the resistance, even abandoning and condemning the Iraqi Sunni leaders that played a role in launching the armed resistance against the American occupier.

Iran created an Iraqi Shia resistance, despite the fact that it didn’t exist before and its prohibition according to Najaf. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia renounced the Iraqi Sunni resistance and refused to support it, not only for Iraq’s interests but also for Saudi Arabia. This is the difference between a state that has a vision and a project, and another state that remained in American orbit, believing that Washington and its promises not to allow Iran to spread its influence in Iraq were sufficient.

Today, Saudi Arabia returns to the Iraqi arena 14 years after the American occupation and nearly a decade after Iran’s influence and control. This influence and control is no longer confined to southern and central parts of Iraq, but has spread to the western and northern parts as well. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards patrol Anbar and are opening command centres in Mosul after these areas were off-limits to the American occupation, whose troops exceeded 250,000 completely equipped fighters.

Saudi Arabia, or at least some there, believes that its influence in Iraq must begin by pulling the Iraqi Shias away from Iran’s embrace. This idea may have been acceptable if we were still in the first two years of the US occupation, but now, Iraq, in its entirety, is Iran’s backyard. 

Saudi Arabia’s openness to Iraq came after the Riyadh-US Islamic Summit, which witnessed an American approach and directing the Muslim countries’ leaders, beginning with Saudi Arabia, to support Haider Al-Abadi’s government. Washington considers him its strongman in Iraq who must be supported by the Arabs as part of the US’ plans to clip Iran’s wings in Iraq.

It also seems that Saudi Arabia aspires to send a message to Iran that it is capable of entering the Iraqi arena, despite the intense Iranian presence. It also wants to show that such entry may occur through the notorious Muqtada Al-Sadr, as Tehran calls him. However, what Saudi Arabia overlooked was the fact that despite agreeing on some issues and positions, Al-Sadr remains true to his doctrine and to the country sponsoring the doctrine, Iran. This is because he knows very well that trying to play behind Iranian lines may bring with it his exile with his father, i.e. by means of assassination blamed on an extremist Sunni organisation such as Daesh. This would warrant an unrelenting sectarian war, which Saudi Arabia will withdraw from quickly, leaving Iraq behind to sink deeper into the Iranian quagmire.

The Saudi move towards Iraq, albeit delayed, must first pass through the gate of Arab consensus and a collective decision regarding the importance of regaining Iraq from Iran’s grips. This must be preceded by the coordination of positions and the understanding of the inevitability of a confrontation with Iran. This has become an inevitability given the economic and media war led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE against Qatar, the soft economic and media power that has always stressed the necessity of supporting Iraq through a political process and the need to enable Sunnis to regain their lost status after the Arabs abandoned them, beginning with Saudi Arabia.