Saudi Arabia’s pragmatic new approach to Iraq is working

Iran’s failures in Iraq are an important factor in creating the conditions for Saudi Arabia to try this new approach.
Sunday 25/11/2018
Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz  Al Saud (R) meets with Iraq’s  President Barham Salih in Riyadh, on November 18.    (Iraqi Presidency)
Arab environment. Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (R) meets with Iraq’s President Barham Salih in Riyadh, on November 18. (Iraqi Presidency)

Here’s a success story of sorts for Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy goals for this year: increasing rapprochement with Iraq.  A new analysis written for the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington by Chatham House researcher Renad Mansour argues that “pragmatic diplomacy” is working. After 25 years of no meaningful relations with Iraq, Mansour writes, Saudi Arabia has adopted a more diplomatic approach than any of its other bold foreign policy moves, which have produced mixed results.

Mansour said Iran’s failures in Iraq are an important factor in creating the conditions for Saudi Arabia to try this new approach.

In a phone interview with The Arab Weekly, Mansour expanded on that point. “In 2014, with the rise of ISIS and the kind of collapse of the Iraqi state in many parts, this Iranian project is itself failing. This was, to the Saudis, the first time really that they found a new channel, an avenue, but what (was) required was making some alliances, changing their approach.”

Saudi Arabia has pursued this more pragmatic approach in Iraq because, as Mansour said, “it’s an exception, where what you have in Iraq is the political dynamics lining up with what Saudi Arabia wanted to see.”

Saudi Arabia’s main goal in Iraq has always been to curb Iranian influence. But after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, Saudi Arabia cut off diplomatic relations. When Saddam was toppled — after the second Iraq war of 2003 — Saudi Arabia failed to take advantage of the situation. Instead, it allowed Iran to gain the upper hand, despite pleas from the United States and other allies for Riyadh to re-engage with Baghdad.

Between 2003 and 2015, Saudi Arabia’s policy was to back major Sunni groups and politicians in Iraq, but this had little actual effect on Riyadh’s influence in the country. Those Sunni groups failed to become major stakeholders in the Iraqi political system. And even though the Saudis backed sectarian Shia politician Ayad Allawi in 2010, he failed to overcome Iranian manoeuvring, which led to united Shia parties (helped by Kurdish endorsement) forming the government.

But when Nuri al-Maliki was replaced by Haider al-Abadi as Iraq’s prime minister in 2014, the political calculus for Saudi Arabia started to change. One of Abadi’s main missions was to loosen Iranian influence over the Iraqi government and to reach out to the United States and its allies in the region, including Saudi Arabia. That year saw Saudi Arabia return to engagement with Iraq, and in 2015 Riyadh appointed its first ambassador to Baghdad in over two decades.

For years, the Americans were seen as the hated occupiers in Iraq. When the Americans moved out, however, the Iranians moved in and became the largest single external power in Iraq. Over the years, Iraqi patience with Iran grew thin, particularly with respect to the Islamic State (ISIS).

“I think something that’s often misunderstood is how big of a problem ISIS was for Iran,” Mansour said. “There is this assumption that Iran wants to completely destroy Iraq, but it is not true. Iran doesn’t want a failed state on its border, Iran wants a weak fledgling state, sure, not a very strong state. But you can’t have a state that’s susceptible to Salafi jihadists capturing it. So 2014 was a huge disaster. Coupled with that was in 2015 this protest movement kicks off in Basra, and it continues every year. “

Mansour adds that the protest movement on the ground “diverts its focus away from the Americans, who aren’t really calling the shots anymore, and towards the Iranians, who are calling the shots, who are powerful.” The consequences for Iran start to become clear. “That dynamic emerges out of the protest movement, where you begin hearing people saying ‘Iran, out, out,’ basically ‘we no longer want Iran in here.’ “

Mansour writes in his analysis that if Saudi Arabia is to build on this new approach, it needs to do so in two ways, economically and politically.

“Saudi Arabia obviously was a key player in the Kuwait reconstruction conference,” he said. “Saudi companies are looking at ways in which they can invest in electricity in Basra for example or elsewhere where Iran is threatening to leave or where sanctions could hurt Iran, even though Iraq has a waiver. So these are the different ways that they’re basically trying to build better relations and connections and it’s much easier to go with money because there’s no ideology when it comes to money than if you have to talk politics as such.”

Politically, Saudi Arabia must proceed cautiously, Mansour said.

“The biggest danger for Saudi Arabia is acting itself too aggressively or being too ambitious off the bat. And then disenfranchising that little pocket of attention that it’s currently getting, right. So for example, there was this talk that Mohammed bin Salman would go to Basra. And a lot of Iraqi Shias aren’t ready for that.”

Many Iraqis are still suspicious of Saudi Arabia, particularly of the role it played in suppressing Shias in Bahrain. Iranian politicians such as Maliki want no part of the Saudis and use every chance they get to knock them, such as the recent global response to the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The kingdom needs to proceed very carefully if it doesn’t want to follow in the footsteps of the Americans and now the Iranians and become the next external power that triggers protests.

“When it comes to how much of a ripple you want to make or a splash, it makes more sense at the moment for Saudi Arabia to kind of focus on this kind of bottom-up approach, where you slowly begin to build trust and build connections and build relations with different powers,” Mansour said.