The benefits of close Iraqi-Saudi ties

Iraqi political forces loyal to Iran are in a real crisis.
Sunday 28/04/2019
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi (2nd R) attends the opening of the Saudi-Iraqi Business Forum in Riyadh, April 18. (Reuters)
Opportunities for investment. Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi (2nd R) attends the opening of the Saudi-Iraqi Business Forum in Riyadh, April 18. (Reuters)

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi had no choice but to react positively to a Saudi initiative for openness and cooperation, which had been going on since former Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir’s visit to Baghdad.

That visit in February 2017, the first to Iraq by a Saudi foreign minister since 1990, was followed by former Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s official visit to Riyadh in June 2017, which laid the foundations for the improved relations between the two countries.

Fortunately, Abdul-Mahdi had based his decisions on his responsibility to the Iraqi people. He must come up with practical solutions to Iraq’s multiple crises, which are intertwined economically, politically and in security. Abdul-Mahdi has a background in economics and figures indicate a large budget deficit and a debt of about $100 billion.

He must deal with people displaced by war and reconstruction of cities. There is an urgent need for electricity across the country despite the billions of dollars spent in that area in the past 15 years, some of which disappeared into the pockets of corrupt officials and thieves.

Abdul-Mahdi knows that Iran, which has infiltrated Iraq to a great extent, is far from wanting to help the Iraqi people. Last summer, Iran shut off the electricity supply to Basra because Iraq was behind in paying its power bill.

Saudi Arabia stands out when it comes to standing by the Iraqi people, without slogans or ideological agendas. There are opportunities for Saudi investment in Iraq in energy, food, health, education and recreational services, serious plans to get Iraq out of its ordeal suggest.

Progress depends on the ability of the Iraqi side to interact with this openness. Abdul-Mahdi seems to realise that opening up to the Saudi initiative would be beneficial for the Iraqis but will he be free to act on it without having to deal with obstacles placed by narrow-minded politicians whose understanding of politics is limited to only their loyalty to the ­velayat-e faqih in Iran?

Looking at Iraqi-Saudi relations solely from an economic point of view does not do justice to Iraq’s historical and strategic importance in the region. This importance was overlooked because of the disaster brought by Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The United States’ occupation of Iraq finished off whatever was left of Iraq’s status in the region.

The country’s human resources declined through forced or wilful immigration and the country was subjected to the dominance of political parties with sectarian ideologies, some of which held allegiance to Tehran at a sacred level transcending the interests of the people of Iraq.

Just a few hours into Abdul-Mahdi’s April 17 visit to Saudi Arabia, doubting voices and echoes of past animosity were raised by parliamentarians belonging to pro-Tehran Shia blocs.

The head of the Badr Organisation bloc insisted on “the necessity of resolving the intentions of the Saudi side towards Iraq, given what it has committed against the Iraqi people and of materialising any good faith on the ground. Exchanging visits and agreements must be in the interest of the Iraqi people. The country is going through a services crisis and unemployment is high. The Iraqi government should focus on solving its internal problems before opening up on the outside world.”

The purpose of such statements is to place obstacles before any move that would serve the Iraqi people. So, what happened between Iraq and Saudi Arabia after 2003? Wasn’t there a bitter war between Iraq and Iran from 1980-88? Nearly 1 million people died in that war and now relations are flourishing between the two countries?

Aren’t relations between countries built on bilateral interests? Granted there are internal problems but must this stop the government from looking ahead and opening to the outside world? Or perhaps what is required here is opening to Iran only and submitting to it.

Iraqi political forces loyal to Iran are in a real crisis. They can no longer cover for the extent of the damage inflicted on Iraq over the past 15 years. Iran has experimented on the Iraqis. It looted their funds, dismantled and looted their factories, destroyed their farms and allowed no development opportunity to compete with its goods.

So, why not give the chance to the right solution, which is to open strongly to Arab countries, particularly Saudi Arabia?

Abdul-Mahdi cannot close his eyes to the rapid developments in Washington’s punitive measures against Tehran, the most recent of which was the classification of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organisation. This development left armed Shia factions in Iraq in a state of confusion.

The US sanctions have gone from touching trade and the economy to a much more serious level, affecting politics and security, a level that Abdul-Mahdi cannot ignore.