The financial windfall from oil and gas exports may boost regional officials’ ambitious economic diversification plans but doesn’t make them foolproof.
Saudi Arabia’s national interests in Iraqi domestic politics, and their impact on regional dynamics, have never been that far from the surface. But they reappeared, strikingly, to the public eye when Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir made a surprise visit to Baghdad on February 26. The ostensible reason for the journey was to strengthen Saudi Arabia’s relations with its northern neighbor, particularly in the context of the ongoing struggle against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and to position Riyadh to maximize its influence in the post-ISIL aftermath in Iraq. However, the diplomatic initiative also conveys important messages about Riyadh’s interests in Iraq, especially countering Iran’s substantial influence by the foreign minister publicly meeting with, and implicitly endorsing, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is fending off a serious political challenge from former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
According to a statement by Abadi’s office, Jubeir congratulated Iraq “on the victories achieved against Daesh [ISIL]” and pledged Saudi Arabia’s support to Iraq in fighting terrorism.
“It’s the hope of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to build excellent relations between the two brotherly countries. There are also many shared interests, from fighting extremism and terrorism [to] opportunities for investment and trade between the two countries,” Jubeir told reporters after meeting with his Iraqi counterpart Ibrahim Jafari. “The kingdom stands at an equal distance from all Iraqi communities making up Iraq and supports the unity and stability of Iraq,” he added.
Saudi Arabia’s efforts to rebuild connections to, and influence in, Iraq have been brewing for some time behind the scenes. Riyadh has a vested interest in the struggle against terrorism in Iraq, but it is also alarmed by Iran’s growing influence in Sunni areas of the country through the central role in the anti-ISIL campaign being played by an umbrella group of largely pro-Iranian and Shia militia forces known collectively as the Popular Mobilization Units. Iraqi security forces, including the PMU, are closing in on Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and ISIL forces there appear to be surrounded and in an impossible long-term position. If PMU forces stay largely in the Sunni Nineveh province, they could provide a territorial link between Iran and the Levant, thereby augmenting Iran’s existing land bridge via Syria, and consolidating Tehran’s influence in the region. What has become clear is that the precise security arrangements in the greater-Mosul area post-ISIL will largely reflect and determine how much influence Iran really exercises in Iraq and its immediate environs.
But reducing Iran’s influence would require preventing Maliki and other Shia politicians backed by Tehran from returning to power in the parliamentary elections planned for 2018.The patronage system of Iraqi politics could pave the way for Maliki to seek another term in office despite his ouster in 2014. He has reportedly sought support from some Kurdish factions to back his bid for premiership. In addition, Maliki’s clout over Shia militias could provide him with further influence with Shia constituents as well as leverage in postelection political horse-trading. In an apparent effort to secure Tehran’s blessing, Maliki visited Iran in January and met with senior Iranian officials. In the process, he severely criticized Saudi Arabia, accusing the kingdom of “sponsoring terrorism,” as well as lashing out against Kurdish groups for alleged landgrabs in areas purged of ISIL forces. In addition, Maliki lambasted Jubeir’s visit to Baghdad, claiming, without evidence, that the purpose of the trip was to secure the release of Saudi prisoners who are allegedly former ISIL fighters.
In efforts to counter Maliki’s challenge, Abadi plans to form his own electoral list named “Liberation and Building.” Abadi has reportedly courted figures such as the firebrand Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the leader of the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq Ammar al-Hakim to join his proposed parliamentary coalition. But Abadi’s potential political alliance is already facing resistance from Tehran. The Iranian Embassy in Baghdad is reportedly working to undermine any potential Abadi-Sadr coalition for upcoming elections, indicating Tehran’s alarm over possible implications for Iran’s sway in Iraq, from the south to the northern Kurdish region, should these delicate political maneuvers prove successful.
Unlike Maliki, Abadi has repeatedly expressed a readiness to improve ties with Riyadh. The prime minister recently called on the Saudi-led Muslim Anti-Terrorism Coalition to help with the postconflict reconstruction of Mosul, which will be an enormous task. In the meantime, he has declared that Baghdad is “interested in establishing cooperative relations with Saudi Arabia,” while simultaneously warning Riyadh against any alleged meddling in the internal affairs of Iraq. Jubeir’s trip could be a response to Abadi’s softening tone toward Saudi Arabia and his apparent willingness for a rapprochement.
In addition, improved Iraqi-Saudi relations could greatly help Abadi strengthen his position in Sunni-dominated areas of Iraq, and foster alliances with Sunni politicians and prominent figures to help ensure he remains in office. Improved ties are also essential for restoring the Sunni community’s confidence in the Iraqi federal government, which will be necessary for securing national reconciliation, as well as ensuring security in Sunni-majority areas.
Tehran has also shown some signs of uneasiness. The Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government territory has been a noteworthy sphere of influence for Iran, as well as Turkey. But in recent years KRG President Masoud Barzani has alarmed Tehran by allowing the Saudis to open a consulate in the Kurdish capital of Erbil. A senior Iranian commander questioned Saudi motives for seeking greater representation within the Kurdish enclave on the grounds that that there are “no Arabs” in need of consular services and the real goal of any Saudi consulate in KRG territory must be undermining Tehran’s interests or even destabilization within Iran.
Maliki’s efforts to return to power have greatly alarmed many Kurds in northern Iraq. Indeed, Barzani actually declared that Kurdistan will formally secede from Iraq if Maliki becomes prime minister again. Both Abadi and Barzani have been operating from politically weak positons, the latter due to his long-expired legal mandate to serve as president. This has prompted them to set aside many broader, long range issues on which they disagree to forge a political alliance of convenience in the short term. Working together to block Maliki’s return to power isn’t the only thing that has pushed them together, but it could certainly consolidate their tactical alliance.
To Abadi’s credit, he has played an excellent and delicate balance of power game in his maneuvers on the Iraqi national and Middle Eastern regional levels. He has reached out to both Iraqi Kurds and Sunnis, while trying to reset Iraq’s ties with its neighbors, including Turkey, (although somewhat unsuccessfully in some cases); sent some conciliatory signals to Saudi Arabia; and maintained extremely good relations with Iran. On the other hand, should he regain the premiership, Maliki could be a disruptive force for internal Iraqi politics as well as to the incremental improvement of Iraqi relations with Saudi Arabia. If Riyadh intends to consolidate its influence in Iraq, backing Abadi’s bid to stay in office, and securing the support of Iraq’s Sunni leaders for him, is the only current viable option.
is a research associate at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington and a political analyst who researches and writes on security, political, and energy issues in the Middle East, focusing on Iraq, Turkey, Iran, the Gulf, and the Levant. He received his PhD from the Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University.
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