SHAFAQNA – The Saudi-Iraqi long-term chilly relationship has sailed out of the doldrums following exchange of visits by the two countries’ officials, including Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir’s trip to Baghdad in late February and two visits of the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to Riyadh one in June and the other in October.
In recent months, a series of developments, on top of them defeat of ISIS terrorist group in Syria and Iraq, have brought about fresh requirements for the regional governments to redesign their foreign policy. To put it differently, in the post-ISIS period all of the regional states have to review their relationship with the others. Meanwhile, every actor is, very importantly, struggling to garner influence in the new conditions.
Saudi Arabia and Iraq are no exception. They are two significant actors with aspirations for more active role in a regional order without ISIS. The kingdom wants to boost its regional influence as part of its traditional rivalry against Iran to rise as a superior regional power. On the other side, Iraq which has paid high cost as a result of fight against ISIS at home is trying to take advantage of the fresh conditions to improve its domestic situation and reach relative economic and political stability.
Now the question is where do the Iraqi-Saudi relations go in the future? To answer the question, there is a need to bring in spotlight two types of backgrounds that can lead to divergence and convergence of the two regional actors.
Certainly, the most important factor that can contribute to the two sides’ intimacy is their Arab identity. The Arab identity and language can importantly play the role of bond-makers between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Beside this background, another issue is the Baghdad need of funding to reconstruct the country after years of devastating war against the terrorists. The fact is that Iraq sustained serious financial and material damages after emergence of ISIS there. The estimations suggest that the country needs between $100 and $150 billion in reconstruction funds to return to the pre-ISIS conditions. This issue can pave the way for Baghdad and Riyadh to come closer. In fact, the Saudi financial aids can effectively drive the two sides to closeness.
This issue can get more prominence if we know that the Saudi Arabian rulers are going to great lengths to curb the Iranian sway in Iraq. They could spend huge money for the final aim of persuading the Iraqi leaders that they need to avoid getting too close to the Islamic Republic. Moreover, being aware of the influence of Saudi Arabia among a portion of Sunni political factions and tribes, Baghdad eyes using the Riyadh potential to win the agreement of the Sunnis with the pro-peace political mechanisms. So, a complex of these cases has facilitated Iraq-Saudi Arabia closeness of relations.
Despite the fact that the two enjoy relative friendship backgrounds, the divisive cases between Iraq and Saudi Arabia look more serious. First case is the Riyadh intention to play its past role of an agitator of sectarianism and the resultant insecurity. The Iraqi leaders know that Saudi Arabia not only declined to help the anti-ISIS campaign, but it supported, as some documents show, the terrorist group’s operations across Iraq. This is enough for Baghdad officials to raise anti-Riyadh pessimism. Even if some Iraqi figures and political factions look forward to see Iraq-Saudi Arabia closeness, they will face serious opposition and pressure from the Iraqi public opinion.
Another sticking point ahead of their friendship is their ideological and religious contrariety. As much as their Arab identity can be converging, Iraq’s being a majorly Shiite state can be diverging. Saudi Arabia, as the main regional promoter of the global Wahabbism, an extremist reading of Sunni Islam, cannot enter a strategic alliance with a Shiite-led Iraq.
Another issue is the fact that the two countries’ economies are far from being complementary to each other. Both of them are oil producers and are economically independent of each other. Therefore, no strong economic relationship is expected to form between them.
Different political systems is another area of their politico-ideological contrast. While Iraq is ruled by constitution and based on elections, separation of powers, and democratic institutions, Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy with citizens having the least influence in change of rulers or law enforcement. Over the past decades, the Saudi leaders have blocked way of democracy across the Arab world as they observed it a challenge to their rule.
Additionally, the Saudis never want Iraq to rise again as a powerful state in the region. They remember Saddam-ruled Iraq that for decades posed a rival to the oil-wealthy monarchy and aspired for Arab world leadership. The same fear still exists in Riyadh to see Iraq restore strength and re-emerge as a regional power capable of seriously setting up roadblocks ahead of Riyadh’s Arab world leadership dreams.
But one of the main reasons behind Iraqi-Saudi divergence is related to the Riyadh intention behind attempting to build ties with Baghdad. Saudi Arabia does not eye serving common interests and repulsing the common threats as a broad regional strategy. Rather, it wants to get a toehold in Iraq to influence the country’s home affairs in a bid to check the Iranian influence. This makes it crystal clear that the kingdom approaches Iraq with an interventionist policy. Meddling will certainly, in mid-term or long-term, escalate the tensions between the two.
Therefore, friendly and strategic Iraq-Saudi Arabia relations are hardly likely. In fact, the potentials of divergence outnumber those of convergence, making an alliance between Riyadh and Baghdad highly unlikely.