Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman hosted the influential Iraqi cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr to discuss areas of cooperation and regional issues. At a time when balances in the region are shifting, inviting Sadr to the Kingdom is an important exercise in proactive diplomacy. The visit resulted in an agreement for Saudi Arabia to donate $10 million in aid to the Iraqi government and work on possible investments in southern Iraq.
Saudi-Iraqi relations are entering a new phase that is likely to have significant implications for the region. The rapprochement dates from 2015, when Saudi Arabia reopened its embassy in Baghdad after a 25-year break, but recent moves have taken it to a new level. A joint trade commission will increase trade and investment between two countries, and month Baghdad will host an international conference that many important Saudi companies will attend.
The Arar border crossing, closed since diplomatic ties were severed in 1990 following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, has reopened for trade. There are plans to open other crossings. Riyadh is also considering a new diplomatic mission in Najaf, Al-Sadr’s holy site, and new air and land links between Najaf and Saudi Arabia. Saudi and Iraqi military commanders will exchange intelligence and security information to combat terrorism.
In the past, ignoring countries under Iranian influence has brought no gain, but rather has played into the hands of Tehran. Gulf countries are now increasing their diplomatic efforts with Iraq to reduce Iranian influence. Al-Sadr is a significant player in those efforts.
Needless to say, Al-Sadr has never been noted for his pro-Saudi views. Nevertheless, he is also one of the few Iraqi Shiite leaders to keep some distance from Tehran, with the aim of showing both Riyadh and Tehran that Iraq’s Shiite groups have more than one option. Al-Sadr’s visit also sends a message to Iran’s allies and proxies that he has the potential to harm Iranian interests in Iraq and elsewhere in the region.
Growing warmth between Saudi Arabia and Iraq is good news for them but bad news for Iran, the Assad regime and Hezbollah.
Saudi Arabia’s move toward Iraq is not good news for the bloc comprising Iran, the Assad regime in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Iraq is at the heart of Tehran’s strategy to create a “Shiite crescent” across the region. There has been no clear statement from the Iranian side regarding the Saudi-Iraqi rapprochement, but there is no doubt Iran is not going to hand over Iraq to the Saudi bloc on a silver platter. Meanwhile, some Lebanese media outlets have already described the meeting between Sadr and Prince Mohammed as a “political bomb”. In fact, it is neither that, nor a permanent alliance: Short-term maneuvers by both sides in order to strengthen their positions in the region would be a more accurate reading.
As for Turkey, another regional heavyweight, the formation of an Iranian-backed Shiite bloc has led to Turkish-Iraqi divergence that peaked during the administration of Nouri Al-Maliki in Iraq. The tensions simmered to the point that the two countries called each other “hostile states.” So the new phase in Saudi-Iraqi relations serves Ankara’s regional purposes to some extent. Also, with Turkey uneasy over Iran’s increasing sectarian influence in the region, Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic moves strengthen Turkey’s hand against the Shiite bloc.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz