Saudi Arabia and Iraq work to reset ties
London - In the first visit to Iraq by a high-ranking Saudi official since 2003, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir made what was billed as a surprise trip to Baghdad to smooth relations and collaborate in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS).
Jubeir, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari on February 25th had the first meetings between a Saudi Foreign minister and Iraqi officials since the Saddam era in 1990.
The two sides “discussed means to enhance bilateral relations in all fields, in addition to the fight against terrorist gang of Daesh (ISIS) and recent push of the Iraqi forces into the right side (western bank) of Mosul”, a statement from Abadi said.
Jubeir described the meeting as “positive and fruitful” and emphasised that “the kingdom stands at an equal distance from all Iraqi communities making up Iraq and supports the unity and stability of Iraq”.
Iraqi sources said the visit by the top Saudi diplomat had actually been planned well in advance and was preceded by several months of negotiations on various issues affecting the two countries and involving the head of Iraq’s National Intelligence Service Mustafa Kadhimi, former US diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad, retired US Army General David Petraeus, a former head of the CIA and the US Central Command, and senior Saudi officials.
A source within the Sunni-dominated Muttahidoon (Sunni Iraqi Forces Alliance) parliamentary coalition said the visit by Jubeir had been put off until now due to statements or incidences “here and there”, adding that “US officials under the Trump administration played a pivotal role in thawing relations between Baghdad and Riyadh”.
Saudi-Iraqi relations deteriorated under Saddam Hussein after the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the subsequent war. Relations went from bad to worse following the 2003 war in which the Iraqi dictator was removed from power. This resulted in the empowerment of the country’s Shia majority and the marginalisation and persecution of Iraq’s Sunni minority.
Attempts to relaunch diplomatic relations between the two energy powerhouses in 2015 ended with a step backward. In December of that year, the kingdom reopened its mission for the first time since 1990, with veteran diplomat Thamer al-Sabhan as its ambassador.
However, his tenure in the country was marked by turmoil and accusations of interference by Iraqi officials.
In August 2016, the pan-Arab, Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat newspaper reported that Sabhan had been the target of an Iran-sponsored assassination attempt. In an interview on Iraqi television, Sabhan said the mission had received information concerning a plot targeting him and the Saudi embassy by Iraqi militias supported by Tehran. A statement from the Iraqi Foreign Ministry dismissed the threat and it asked the Saudi government to replace Sabhan over his anti-militia statements.
Whether the latest overtures lead to better relations between Saudi Arabia and Iraq remains to be seen but at least one Gulf analyst remains optimistic.
Al-Arabiya News Channel General Manager Turki Aldakhil chose the theme of Arab solidarity in his assessment, writing that: “There is a desire to bring Iraq to the Arab fold and to discuss coordination with the country to curb terrorism, especially considering the fact that the menace is expanding over vast areas of Iraq and Syria.”
Aldakhil highlighted the kingdom’s support for Iraq, saying: “Saudi Arabia has since day one decided to support Iraqi unity.” He added: “Iraq will remain Arab and one day it will return to its natural space, the reservoir of Arab and Islamic civilisation.”
The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar, which, along with Saudi Arabia, are members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, welcomed the rapprochement efforts.