Abadi’s Riyadh visit augurs well for Iraqi-Saudi relations
Despite significant reservations over Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, who famously rained its cities with missiles in 1991, Saudi Arabia was never too happy with the political elites who replaced him in 2003, writing them off as stooges of the Iranian regime. Nearly all of them were Shias who had either spent their exile in Iran or received funds at some point of their careers from the country. For Saudi officials, they were automatic suspects, guilty of being creations of the mullahs of Tehran.
However, heralding a potential rapprochement between the Iraqi political elite and Saudi Arabia was the arrival of two senior Iraqi politicians — Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari — in Riyadh. This was the second high-profile visit in four months.
Thirteen years ago, Abadi was a minister of communications and Jaafari had a stint as prime minister. Both were members of the Dawa Party, an all-Shia movement funded for years by the Iranian government. Saudi Arabia originally refused to court either politician and both were highly critical of Riyadh, accusing it of bankrolling what was called the “Sunni insurgency” that led to the rise of al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Such opinions were also voiced by their colleague and boss, Nuri al-Maliki, a ranking member of Dawa who was prime minister from 2006-14 and is currently vice-president of Iraq. During his tenure, Sunnis were purged from a senior government office, de- Ba’athification laws were imposed and senior former regime officials — all of them Sunnis — were hanged, headed, of course, by Saddam himself. The sight of him at the hangman’s noose facing masked executioners wearing black sent shivers down the spines of Saudi officials, especially as they chanted “Muqtada, Muqtada.”
Muqtada al-Sadr was an all-time Iranian favourite who emerged to lead the urban poor of the Iraqi Shia community, becoming an overnight star, kingmaker and leader. He commanded death squads that roamed the streets of Baghdad, settling old scores with Sunni Muslims. Last April he seemed to be distancing himself from Tehran, calling on its top ally, Bashar Assad, to step down as president of Syria. This summer, Sadr visited the Saudi port city of Jeddah, meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz.
A parliamentary ally yet family foe Ammar al-Hakim, another veteran Iranian stooge, was also parting ways with Tehran, stepping down from his capacity as chief of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, an Iranian creation that was used to fight Saddam’s army in the 1980s. Then came a surprise visit by Maliki, not to Tehran but to Moscow, where he tried to breathe life into a stagnated $2 billion arms deal. Maliki was Iran’s number one ally in Iraq. By heading to Moscow, he was sending signals that he might be on the lookout for new patrons and allies.
The courting of Sadr and Hakim and the sudden honeymoon with Abadi show that something is changing — rather fast — in Riyadh, Baghdad and Tehran itself. For Iran, it clearly shows that the patronage system it carefully upheld since 2003 was showing serious cracks, mostly because of a lack of funds. Too much money was apparently spent on the Syrian battlefield, greatly affecting the sustainability of Iran’s Shia protégé in Iraq.
True, Iran had created all of those figures but it was struggling to pull through with them, prompting all three to look for help — and money — elsewhere. Within Baghdad, the rapprochement with Saudi Arabia comes ahead of parliamentary elections in April. The three ambitious Shia politicians are no longer satisfied with coming across as “Iran-made” or “Shia leaders.” They want to expand into a cross-sectarian power base, which might be very difficult because of their murky past, and are seeking Saudi funds to do that.
Finally, in Riyadh, it shows that the strategic hand of Crown Prince Mohammed jumping behind enemy lines and eating away at Iran’s power base within Iraqi society. For years the Saudis tried everything to dismantle Iran’s Arab fiefdoms, from character assassinations to accusing Tehran’s proxies of being traitors, agents and sectarian tools in the hands of the ayatollah. That led to absolutely nothing — the more the Saudis trashed them, the closer these figures clung to Iran — often for lack of a better alternative.
Over the past year-and-a-half, Crown Prince Mohammed has been pursuing an entirely different approach. He is courting the Iraqi Shias, treating them with respect as veteran statesmen, winning hearts, before pockets, in Baghdad. When summoned to Tehran for dictates or consultation, these men are treated as employees rather than statesmen and leaders. Turbaned patrons who created them rarely show them the respect that they expect.
Saudi Arabia is walking an extra mile to please its new friends in Baghdad. It reopened borders this year and resumed commercial flights for the first time in three decades. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir has stressed that his country wants to take part in the rebuilding of Iraq, emphasising its “Arab Gulf” identity.
Under the crown prince’s guidance, he is trying to close every channel through which the Iranians entered Iraqi politics in 2003. After 14 years, money, power and pomp matter more to these Iraqi politicians than a dogmatic discourse on Shia religious history, which remains a cornerstone for the Iranians. Unlike their Lebanese ally Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, who remains committed to Iran, both ideologically and politically, these figures go for the higher bidder and, at present, this seems to be the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, rather than Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei or President Hassan Rohani.