Many analysts have attempted to explain the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s outreach to post-2003 Iraq as a desire for Riyadh to have its say in Baghdad’s politics and to counter Iran’s influence. One overlooked motivation central to Saudi Arabia’s new approach is its own domestic policy: countering potential Iranian infiltration in the Kingdom’s Shi’a-dominated Eastern Province. Strengthening ties with Iraq’s national religious authorities (marji’yat) signals a rapprochement with the entire Shi’a sect. However, Saudi Arabia should consider that constructing such a binary is complicated when leveraging Iraqi society as a backdrop to constructing its own. Iraq’s marj-iya follows a different model of theocracy than that of “Wilayat Al Faqih,” the Islamic Republic of Iran’s political model that imposes a rule of jurisprudence on all aspects of Iranian life. Nonetheless, the marji’yya can only serve as a bulwark against Iran’s religious influence to a limited extent.
Until recently, Saudi Arabia has perceived Iraq as a security threat. Iran’s influence in Baghdad looms ahead of a feasible strategy aimed at supporting Iraq as a neighboring Arab state. While the Iraqi public and a significant number of its politicians are increasingly discontent with Iran’s outreach in Iraq, open hostility has not been the answer Baghdad adopted as a solution to Tehran’s strategy. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Iran has fully exploited the absence of U.S. planning for the “morning after,” successfully entrenching, and in many cases coercing, its presence in Iraq’s social, economic, religious, and military affairs. Its appeal is decades old among former loyalists who became key members in the Iraqi government. These politicians and officials do not shy away from acknowledging their alignment with Iran, a frustrating reality for Iraq’s Western allies who toppled Saddam and the Sunni neighbors who harbor legitimate concerns regarding Iran’s expansionist ambitions. A neighbor, an ally, and regional power that has frequently displayed contempt at Iraq’s sovereignty, Iran is a force Iraqis must reckon with. Ironically, Saudi Arabia’s relationship with its own Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) neighbors resembles to an extent Iran’s regional foreign policy—one that is aimed at creating satellite states that function under its mandate.
In June 2017, Iraq’s Interior Minister Qassim Al Araji paid a visit to Saudi Arabia to “forge high level cooperation on security and other vital matters for both states.” Al Araji met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and several security officials. The visit followed Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubair’s surprise trip to Baghdad earlier in the year, but Al Araji is an active member of the Iranian-backed Badr Organization, thus his arrival on Saudi soil for reasons other than the pilgrimage to Mecca reflected a significant change.
Former U.S. State Secretary Rex Tillerson directly sponsored the rapprochement, and Saudi Arabia appeared willing and cooperative. Despite Saudi authorities often referring to the Hashd Al Sha’abi—the confluence of militias gathered under the Dawa Party leadership and an ambiguous religious fatwa—as a scourge and source of instability, and Popular Mobilization Units’s (PMU) leadership had displayed little objection to the new Saudi footprint.
With the departure of Rex Tillerson, the nixing of America’s participation in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or Iran nuclear deal), and the increasingly aggressive rhetoric from current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo towards Iranian influence in the region, will the Saudis lose the incentive to reach out to Baghdad?
The answer is most likely no.
Since 2016, Saudi Arabia’s reading of its own security and social dilemma has shifted: the growing tensions with the Saudi Shi’a of the Eastern Province cannot be confronted by force. One particular example is enlightening: Saudi Arabia executed Shi’a cleric Nimr Alnimr whom authorities accused of terrorism. While the official Iraqi pleas to pardon the cleric were unsuccessful, the reactions to the execution across the Shi’a world were too loud to ignore. Mobs attacked and burned the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran, but despite the worldwide condemnation of the embassy sacking, Iran had once again presented itself as the sole defender of Shi’a grievances in the Islamic world. Violence soon played out on the streets of Qatif, and with Iran already championing legitimate grievances in Bahrain and indirectly supporting the Houthis in Yemen, the oil-rich Eastern Province was the last place Saudis would tolerate Iranian tampering. A new approach to Shi’a communities in Saudi Arabia became a necessity, and Saudi authorities have not been subtle with their new measures. Clerics have been banned from publicly chastising Shi’a in sermons and televised programming. In 2015, after an ISIS suicide bomber attacked a Shi’a mosque in Al Qatif, Saudi media heavily reported on the “solidarity between all Saudis in the face of terrorism.” Shi’a families visited the homes of fallen law enforcement officers in Al Qasim, the heart of Wahhabism—Saudi Arabia’s strain of strict Salafism and political devotion to the ruling King—while Sunni families visited the victims of the attacks in Qatif.
Within this context, we can look at the new Saudi Arabian engagement as not a means to counter Iranian influence in Iraq, but rather as a message to the Kingdom’s own Shi’a population: we are not at war with your set of beliefs, but against Iranian meddling in our affairs. The recent visible cracks between Iraq’s authentic Shi’a authorities and Iran provided a fresh model for an Arab “Marjiyi’a” that does not answer to Qum. Najaf is not pleased with Iran’s claims to speak on behalf of Shia everywhere, and such nuances help countries with Shi’a populations in the minority keep Iranian dominance afar. Warming up to Iraq’s Shi’a institutions is a positive step that can help counter a reservoir of deeply rooted sectarian disfavor of Shi’a in Saudi Arabia with the aim of creating a cohesive national Shi’a identity that can withstand Iranian infiltration. The new approach can help the social fabric of the Kingdom recover, but rapprochement with mainstream Iraq requires a better comprehension of how Iraqis perceive Saudi Arabia, an understanding of sub-identity management, and an acknowledgement of the complexities that accompany the concept of opposing Iran.
Saudi Arabia’s Perception in Iraq’s Recent Memory
The relationship between Iraq and Saudi Arabia has historically altered between animosity, tensions, grudging acceptance, and regional coexistence. The new phase of this relationship cannot exclude a rich past that holds firm in the Iraqi conscious and popular memory.
Shi’a Iraqis have long viewed the Gulf monarchy with suspicion. In 1802, Mohammed bin Abdulwahab led a fighting force to sack Karbala, butchering thousands of Shi’a inhabitants during the Ottoman era. The sacking of Karbala is still referred to today as a victorious campaign in Saudi Arabia. Until a century ago, the Ikhwan forces of Najd campaigned against southern Iraqi tribes despite warnings from King Abdulaziz and his British allies who were then the Mandatory power in control of Iraq. In recent years, Saudi media green-lighted sectarian anti-Shi’a rhetoric to dominate state-sanctioned television broadcasting. Education too includes forms of discrimination against the Shi’a sect, an ongoing problem in the Kingdom that until recently remained unaddressed.
Outreach to Iraqi Shi’a should not only include politicians, but also approach mainstream Shi’a Iraqis who anticipate the retirement of the derogatory term, “Rawafidh,” historically used to describe followers of Imam Ali bin Taleb, who refused to legitimize the Caliphs who succeeded Prophet Mohammed, from popular Saudi discourse. Other causes of discontent include destroying Meccan sites considered sacred by Shi’a, the war in Yemen, and overwhelming popular endorsement of different “jihad” concepts outside of the Kingdom.
Sunni Iraq, on the other hand, has a divided stance. The wave of Arab nationalism in the 1940s and 1950s created popular hostility towards Saudi Arabia as the latter openly opposed and countered pan-Arabism. The religious crowd viewed the Kingdom with reverence, but ideologically referenced Ottoman Sunnism rather than Saudi’s rigid interpretation of Islam. Nonetheless, the fringe community influenced by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood aligned with Saudi Arabia in its war of ideas against Nassir and the Ba‘th Party. Nevertheless, Saddam Hussein’s monopoly of power would severely weaken this alliance.
The followers of Salafism—the concept of authentic Islam as practiced by the “Salaf” or early Muslims—often set Saudi Arabia as the epitome of Islam’s righteous path. Salafism reflected in social conservatism has found its grounds in Iraq from the time of the ill-advised Faith Campaign of the mid-1990s. However, it was rise of the Islamic State in Iraq that raised many questions about the influence of Wahhabism on the roots of extremist ideology as practiced by the self-proclaimed Caliphate and its followers. On social media, where much of Iraq’s public discourse takes place, Saudi Arabia was ruled guilty as being the source, ideologically and materially, of the Islamic State. The accusation is ostensible at best, but the perceptions stand. While Sunni supremacy existed in the context of left-leaning Arab nationalism, overt hostility over differences in theology is a foreign phenomenon in Iraq’s recent memory. Saudi Arabia’s counter-ISIS narrative—focused on describing the group as a grassroots Iraqi organization and overstating the Ba‘thist and Saddamist role in the group—exonerates radical fatwas and decades of normalizing sectarian rhetoric and glorification of jihad. While the Islamic State’s leadership is indeed Iraqi, there is no questioning the ideological roots of ISIS, which borrowed a more brutal version of Islam from al-Qaeda.
Saudi Excitement and Miscalculations
As Iraq’s Independent Higher Electoral Commission was announcing the initial results of the May 12 general parliamentary elections, the Gulf—in particular Saudi—press gloated at what it perceived to be a resounding defeat to Iran: Iraq’s “nationalist” Muqtada Al Sadr had the lead. Trailing him by a small margin was the openly Iranian-backed “Fatah” bloc, comprised of the Popular Mobilization Units, Al Hashd Al Sha’bi.
The euphoria would last less than one month. On June 12, Muqtada Al Sadr’s “Sairoon” bloc announced its alliance with “Fatah” in a move that surprised many; however, it was not too outlandish for the static module of Iraqi politics that has not seen major shifts since the first elections in 2005. Muqtada Al Sadr, despite his several harsh criticisms of the Kingdom, is also a Gulf media favorite. Even as Riyadh might have given up on Sunni figures, Shi’a critics of Iran from Iraq’s political and social spectrum were welcomed and endorsed.
Despite the initial excitement over the election results, using Iran as a gauge for Iraqi patriotism is a pitfall. The reasons preventing Iraq from taking a stronger line against Iranian interference will not be resolved in the near future, and they come as a direct result of mismanaging Iraq’s affairs in the aftermath of regime change. There are no true anti-Iran camps in Iraq, including its Sunni political establishment. Relationships with Tehran range from acknowledgement to full alignment, with actors that call for ejecting Iranian influence being fringe figures that remain excluded from the political process. The Iraqi public is vocal about the indignation of Iranian overreach, but unanimously rejects the mere idea of an armed confrontation. The grief of the eight-year war is still present in many, if not most, Iraqi households. The belief that Saddam sacrificed the country to protect the Gulf still holds. Iraq’s political system since 2005 has revolved around bargains between the same crop of politicians who share similar merits of inefficiency and mismanagement, even if few of them resort to fiery anti-Iran commentary that sounds appealing to Tehran rivals.
Another reflection of Saudi Arabia’s weak understanding of the delicate Iraqi compact is its overt support to Kurdish independence. King Salman officially stated that Saudi Arabia supported the unity of Iraq and called for the Kurds not to go through with the September 25, 2017 referendum to vote on the independence of the areas under Kurdish Regional Government’s autonomy. However, sympathy towards the Kurds’ right of independence has been steadily increasing, building on the flawed perception, often dispersed by Kurdish lobbyist groups, that an independent Kurdish state would create a bulwark against Iranian expansion while disregarding the actual breaking of Iraq.
Gains and Challenges in the Saudi-Iraqi Relationship
Souring relations between Saudi Arabia and Iraq cannot be pinned on Iran. Since 1990, Saudi Arabia has had its embassy in Iraq shut down and borders closed. Until 2003, relations between the two states were openly hostile. Up until two years ago, several Iraqi officials openly accused Saudi Arabia’s “petro-dollars” of stirring violence in the country. Non-state actors, like Wathiq Al Battat, resorted to armed violence against Saudi Arabia, aware that he could go unpunished.
One year ago, Saudi and Iraqi authorities reopened the Arar border crossing in a huge step to re-establish trade and the facilitation of pilgrimage to Mecca. Iraq offers Saudi Arabia a consumer market for its goods as the Kingdom strives for the success of its Vision 2030—the massive economic revamp aimed at reducing Saudi Arabia’s dependency on oil. As the Financial Times reported earlier this year, Saudi Arabia and Iraq exchanged delegations in an excited atmosphere that was soon damaged by the daunting reality of Iraq’s outdated banking system and rampant corruption. Security, too, was another concern.
The infamous Qatari kidnappings last year made headlines globally, highlighting the unparalleled strength of paramilitaries in Iraq. In December 2015, the Iranian-backed militia Kataib Hizbollah kidnapped 26 Qatari royals who were on a hunting trip near Al Muthanna province in Iraq. Though the case itself and the ransom became a PR talking point for Saudi Arabia against Qatar, it would be hard to imagine a reaction different if royals of another GCC state were subjected to a similar ordeal. With a Saudi Embassy now in Baghdad and potential consulates in other cities, the risks run higher for Saudi interests and personnel. Former Ambassador Thamer Al Sabhan claims to have received death threats following several controversial comments on social media. Increasing hostility with the Popular Mobilization Units could subject newfound economic ties and interest to many obstacles. Saudi Arabia has a stake in balancing communication with all groups in Iraq to assure the safety of its own businesses.
Saudi Arabia’s assistance in the reconstruction of Sunni territories liberated from ISIS can be considered another venue that can build positive leverage. With Riyadh struggling to meet the all promises and projects designed for its “Vision 2030” and the rampant corruption in Iraq’s reconstruction sector, local residents are not likely to see tangible outcomes of such assistance unless firm plans are set to execute projects that benefit the public. Nonetheless, if Saudi Arabia can contribute in improving the quality of daily life for average Iraqis, the feedback would be more rewarding than inciting against Iran and Iranian-backed groups. As the United States ramps up economic sanctions against Tehran from abroad, and discontent with Iran’s regional policies simmers on the domestic front, financial support to Iraq is a realm Saudi Arabia can utilize. The Kingdom did not miss the recent opportunity to step in during the electricity crisis in south Iraq that led to a wave of ongoing protests. Iran had cut electricity flow to Iraq from its grids in June after the latter failed to pay its accumulating debts. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait quickly looked to partially fill Iran’s void by sending diesel shipments to help generate electricity in the direst areas.
Saudi Arabia aims to counter Iran whenever possible, but the Kingdom has recently opted to offer an alternative: a better perception of Saudi Arabia to a suspicious Iraqi population. Although Riyadh continues to engage in erroneous strategies such as backing Kurdish independence, there are little expectations to counter Iran via an outreach to Shi’a leaders or the business sector in Baghdad. Riyadh can exploit Iran’s blunders in Baghdad, such as cutting off electricity, overtly boasting about its control of Iraq, and empowering militias at the expense of the conventional security apparatus, if the Kingdom distances its approach from any sectarian rhetoric and interference.
Unlike Iran, Saudi Arabia’s organic support base in Iraq is limited. The Kingdom holds a significant status among Iraqi Muslims as the land of Islam’s holiest sites. Iraqis, who live in a diverse nation with a number sects, beliefs, and political leanings, have seldom found in Saudi Arabia a regional ally or protector. Reaching out to Shi’a politicians, clergy, and activists aims at enhancing Saudi’s image in Iraq which can in turn bring long-term advantages to the Kingdom.