Saudi-Iraq reconciliation, a historic development

Saudi-Iraq reconciliation, a historic development
Updated 08 January 2015

Saudi-Iraq reconciliation, a historic development

Saudi-Iraq reconciliation, a historic development

Almost quarter of a century is way long enough for two countries, especially two neighbors with so many common interests, to be diplomatically apart. That has been the situation between Saudi Arabia and Iraq. The Kingdom withdrew its ambassador and staff from Baghdad after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990. Saddam’s diplomats were thrown out of Riyadh.
Ever since then, links between the two countries have been informal and indirect. It might have been hoped this would change when power passed from the US-led occupation forces to Iraqi politicians. But Iraq was deeply unfortunate in Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, who refused to adopt pluralist policies that would embrace all Iraqi communities. Instead he listened far too closely to the siren voices from Iran. The bad advice he received brought about the virtual disintegration of his country. It saw the upsurge of the terrorists of the so-called Islamic State. It also led to Iraq’s connivance in Tehran’s support for the Assad dictatorship in Syria. This led to further misery for millions of Syrians, as refugees either outside or within their shattered homeland.
In such circumstances, for the Kingdom to have resumed full diplomatic relations, would have seemed an endorsement of the Maliki government’s short-sighted follies. It was only when his once-close allies realized that his intransigence was leading Iraq into increasingly dangerous and divisive waters that he was forced from power.
Now under Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi, Iraq is trying to confront its demons. He and his government have an immense task putting together what Maliki’s lack of wisdom had torn apart. It is not simply that the central government needs to win back the trust of alienated Sunnis, it also has to cope with the terror threat of the rabid IS. Then there are the demoralized and badly-led armed forces to be rebuilt. In addition, fences have to be mended with the northern Kurds.
In all of these daunting tasks, the Kingdom wishes to do its best to help. The very act of reopening its embassy in Baghdad is a powerful signal of Saudi endorsement of the new Iraqi leadership. The establishment of a consulate in the Kurdish heartland of Erbil is a further signal that the Kingdom wants to fully understand the complex challenges facing its neighbor.
Of course the re-establishment of diplomatic ties does not mean that the two countries will always agree with each other. There will always be issues on which governments differ. But the key significance of the re-establishment of ties is that Riyadh and Baghdad can be in regular contact. Each can explain its thinking to the other. Perhaps just as importantly, they have the means, through their diplomatic missions, to keep on talking.
However the last thing any country would want to do is rush into an exchange of envoys, only to decide that an ambassador must be withdrawn to protest something the host government has done. Last September, Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal signaled the renewal of Saudi-Iraqi links. This was followed up when Iraq’s President Fouad Al-Masoum visited the Kingdom last November and met Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah and government officials. The warmth of that visit was obvious. The diplomatic rapprochement that Iraq had sought was achieved.
The Kingdom has much to offer its neighbor. It is the largest economy in the Arab world. It has a fund of financial, commercial and administrative expertise that can help Iraq rebuild. It is also a key player in the Gulf Cooperation Council whose member states are obvious trading counter-parties for Baghdad. In a region which has seen disfiguring interference from outside states, Arab countries should be partnering each other in construction, hydrocarbon and infrastructure technology.
The multilateral links of the Arab League are important and new arrangements can strengthen the close bilateral ties that come with fully diplomatic representation. This is the driver for the exchange of top-level envoys. The upsurge of terrorist violence in Iraq is incidental.
Once the terrorist threat has been defeated and the territorial integrity of Iraq restored, the warm bilateral relations that are now being re-established, will endure.
Teams from Riyadh are currently seeking out the best secure locations in both Baghdad and Erbil for the new Saudi missions. As has been said elsewhere, this is a truly historic development.