Saudi Arabia and Iraq work to reset ties

Sunday 05/03/2017
New phase? Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi (R) meeting with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir in Baghdad, on February 25th

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.