The significance of the Iraqi president’s visit to Riyadh
The aspirations of Iraq and Saudi Arabia for bilateral relations fluctuate wildly from a high of hoping for comprehensive cooperation to a low of simply acceptance of traditional diplomacy. The visit to Riyadh by new Iraqi President Dr. Barham Salih comes at a time when there is a need for relations to be reinvigorated to reflect a shift in the situation regionally, as well as internally within Iraq.
Salih’s first official engagement since his election by the Iraqi Parliament is a tour of the Gulf, and his visit to Riyadh marks the grand conclusion. The Kingdom would have been the first stop on the tour, one of the Iraqi president’s assistants said, had it not been for previously scheduled visits by King Salman to the regions of Saudi Arabia. Thus Salih arrives in Saudi Arabia with a good understanding of the latest political positions of Iraq’s neighboring states.
The era of the new Iraqi presidency has begun and it calls for optimism in order to complete the journey and cross the bridge over the abyss infested with the mines of Iran, Syria and terrorism. It is an abyss, thankfully, that the previous presidency managed to avoid. Salih seeks the solidarity of neighboring countries, as well as their respect for his nation’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. He does not want Iraq to be a passageway for armies or a battlefield for regional wars.
Indeed, last summer’s crises have shown the variety of challenges facing the new government in Baghdad, over and above Iran’s trans-boundary militias, the Iran-backed Iraqi militias, and the broken Daesh remnants and their escapees who have fled Syria. Aside from all these issues, the former government had to deal with crises that were no less serious, including public outrage about water contamination and power outages. The new government faces the same crises — soiled relations with Tehran and contaminated water — and so it will take a tremendous political effort to provide security, stability and everyday public services, and to start the development process.
Among Iraq’s six neighboring countries, Saudi Arabia is the most capable of helping the Iraqi authorities move toward economic development. In his speech to the latest investment conference, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman named Iraq as one of the regional countries expected to enjoy increasing economic success.
Among Iraq’s six neighboring countries, Saudi Arabia is the most capable of helping the Iraqi authorities move toward economic development.
Both literally and figuratively, Iraq finds itself stuck between two competing neighbors: Saudi Arabia and Iran. The tripartite relationship among Riyadh, Baghdad and Tehran is tangled and complex. It remains to be seen how senior officials in Iraq decide they want to define this relationship and deal with the two governments. Furthermore, both the Saudis and the Iranians consider Iraq to be a geopolitical extension and a first line of defense, and believe it could be a source of stability as well as instability.
However, despite the similarities in their visions, the differences are clear in the conflicting practices of Iraq’s neighbors. Saudi Arabia wants Iraq to be its passage to Syria, Turkey and Central Asia, through which buses of pilgrims, food trucks and industrial products can pass. Iran wants to use Iraq as a “highway” for the transportation of militants and arms, and of funding for its wars in the region.
Riyadh wants Iraq to be stable and successful, which is how it views Egypt, so that it can put pressure on Baghdad to secure its borders and enjoy a thriving trade relationship. The Iranian regime wants Iraq to remain a “milking cow,” so it can continue to challenge Western economic sanctions and fund the activities of Quds Force, Hezbollah and others in Syria and Lebanon. These are the practices of the Iranian supreme leader’s regime in Afghanistan and Pakistan, to which it exports chaos, militants and weapons.
Saudi Arabia can be a major economic partner that contributes to Iraq’s recovery and enhances the stability of its central authority, rather than allowing it to fall under the control of Iran’s warlords. Later, Iraq might be able to play a role, post-US economic sanctions, by pushing Tehran toward moderation instead of opening the borders to allow it to destroy countries and wage wars.
President Barham Salih has had a distinguished political and government career and we have known him to be a symbol of a united and modern Iraq. He has a clean political history, clear of sectarian and ethnic conflicts, and most of his ideas have been implemented as development, education and coexistence projects on the ground.
I had the privilege of working closely with him on the board of trustees of the American University of Kurdistan, which opened its doors to all Iraqis and continued to operate during the peak of terrorism and local conflicts.
- Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is a veteran columnist. He is the former general manager of Al Arabiya news channel, and former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat.Twitter: @aalrashed