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Saudi-Iraq Relations

Saudi Arabia supports the establishment of a unified, independent, and sovereign Iraq. The kingdom is a charter member of the International Compact with Iraq and participates in the Expanded Iraq Neighbors process. In January 2008, Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal reiterated Saudi Arabia's intention to open a diplomatic mission in Baghdad and appoint an ambassador.

Saudi relations with Iraq have been problematic, vacillating from tension to de facto alliance to war. Throughout the 1960s and into the early 1970s, Riyadh had suspected Baghdad of supporting political movements hostile to Saudi interests, not only in the Arabian Peninsula but also in other Middle Eastern countries. Saudi-Iraqi ties consequently were strained; the kingdom tried to contain the spread of Iraqi radicalism by strengthening its relations with states such as Iran, Kuwait, Syria, and the United States, all of which shared its distrust of Baghdad. Beginning about 1975, however, Iraq began to moderate its foreign policies, a change that significantly lessened tensions between Riyadh and Baghdad.

Saudi Arabia's diplomatic relations with Iraq were relatively cordial by the time the Iranian Islamic Revolution erupted in 1979. The Saudis and Iraqis both felt threatened by the Iranian advocacy of exporting Islamic revolution, and this shared fear fostered an unprecedented degree of cooperation between them.

Although Riyadh declared its neutrality at the outset of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980, it helped Baghdad in nonmilitary ways. For example, during the conflict's eight years, Saudi Arabia provided Iraq with an estimated US$25 billion in low-interest loans and grants, reserved for Iraqi customers part of its production from oil fields in the Iraq-Saudi Arabian Neutral Zone, and assisted with the construction of an oil pipeline to transport Iraqi oil across its territory.

The Saudis, reportedly along with other GCC officials attending the March 1985 GCC ministerial conference, certainly experienced uneasy moments during the Iranian offensive in the Hawaizah marshes, and had the Iraqis broken, would have seen themselves back in the bad old days of 1982-83, with their worst fears all but realized. As the Iraqis did not break, however, such fears receded and the basis for Saudi confidence has been reaffirmed.

The Saudis were not eager to see an early return of large volumes of Iranian and Iraqi oil to the world market. The Saudis saw numerous ups and downs in the tanker war, and saw the tanker war attacks settle into a pattern of Iraqi attacks south of Kharg and Iranian reprisals east of Qatar, outside the zone covered by the Royal Saud Air Force. In these zones attack frequency may wax and wane, but the Saudis no longer greatly feared that these attacks will escalate or spread the conflict. The effects on availability of vessels in the gulf and on insurance rates are far less drastic than previously feared.

The Saudis experienced occasional surges of hope about appearances of relative moderation and reasonableness in Iran, and the need to nurture any seeds of such moderation. But these hopes turned to dust. The Saudis shared the Iraqi analysis that moderation can only expand under pressure, military and diplomatic pressure that over time may convince the immoderate majority of Iranian leaders that their intransigence was leading only to increasing failure: pressure, in other words, that in time may prove the moderates correct.

Despite its considerable financial investment in creating a political alliance with Iraq, Saudi Arabia failed to acquire a long-term friend. On the contrary, in August 1990, only two years after Baghdad and Tehran had agreed to cease hostilities, Iraqi forces unexpectedly invaded and occupied Kuwait. From a Saudi perspective, Iraq's action posed a more direct and serious threat to its immediate security than the possibility of Iranian-supported subversion. The Saudis were genuinely frightened and requested the United States to bring troops into the kingdom to help confront the menace.

Riyadh's fears concerning Baghdad's ultimate intentions prompted Saudi Arabia to become involved directly in the war against Iraq during January and February 1991. In 1990-91, Saudi Arabia played an important role in the Gulf War, developing new allies and improving existing relationships between Saudi Arabia and some other countries, but also suffering diplomatic and financial costs. Relations between Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya deteriorated. Each country had remained silent following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait but called for an end to violence once the deployment of coalition troops began. Relations between these countries and Saudi Arabia later returned to their pre-war status. Saudi Arabia's relations with those countries which expressed support for Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait--Yemen, Jordan, and Sudan--were severely strained during and immediately after the war.

Although the United States was the principal military power in the coalition of forces that opposed Iraq, the kingdom's air bases served as main staging areas for aerial strikes against Iraqi targets, and personnel of the Saudi armed forces participated in both the bombing assaults and the ground offensive. Iraq responded by firing several Scud-B missiles at Riyadh and other Saudi towns. This conflict marked the first time since its invasion of Yemen in 1934 that Saudi Arabia had fought against another Arab state.

Saudi leaders were relieved when Iraq was defeated, but they also recognized that relations with Baghdad had been damaged as severely as Iraqi military equipment had been in the deserts of Kuwait and southern Iraq. Consequently, postwar Saudi policy focused on ways to contain potential Iraqi threats to the kingdom and the region. One element of Riyadh's containment policy included support for Iraqi opposition forces that advocated the overthrow of Saddam Husayn's government. In the past, backing for such groups had been discreet, but in early 1992 the Saudis invited several Iraqi opposition leaders to Riyadh to attend a wellpublicized conference. To further demonstrate Saudi dissatisfaction with the regime in Baghdad, Crown Prince Abd Allah permitted the media to videotape his meeting with some of the opponents of Saddam Husayn.

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein's government in 2003, Iran has advanced its influence in Iraq, which has further strained relations with Saudi Arabia. Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia long accused Iraq of being too close to Iran and of encouraging sectarian discrimination against Sunnis, charges denied by Baghdad. Iran's self-image, as well as its perception of its regional role, responsibility, and pre-eminence, likely drove Iranian activism in Iraq. By 2006 Iran was overreaching in Iraq, and there seemed to be an Iranian sense of entitlement to influence because of the Shia population and eight years of war. Tehran was very influential in Iraq. Iranian leaders appeared to believe events were heading in a favorable direction and that time was on their side.

By 2008 the Saudis recognized that Iraq's situation was improving, although they remained reluctant to actually open their Embassy in Baghdad. They retained their suspicions of Iraqi Prime Minister of Nuri al-Maliki.

On 20 February 2010, Dr. Iyyad Allawi, former Iraqi PM and current leader of the cross-sectarian Iraqiyya coalition, met with King Abdullah at his desert encampment at Rowdat Khuraim outside Riyadh. The meeting received front-page coverage in several major dailies, and was featured prominently on Saudi television and the official Saudi Press Agency website.

Abdulmohsen bin Abdulaziz Al-Tuwaijri, Assistant Deputy Commander of the Saudi National Guard, voiced his support for Allawi. "Allawi is the only person who can unite the Iraqi people," he said. The U.S. should support Allawi, he continued, and marginalize Maliki's influence on the government. Repeating a familiar refrain, Al-Tuwaijri said Maliki "cannot be trusted...he is just like Chalabi, and everyone knows that Chalabi is an Iranian agent." The King agreed to meet with Allawi because he was "the sort of person we want to work with in Iraq." Allawi was reaching out across different groups, "and it didn't matter if they were Shia, Sunni, or Kurds -- they were all Iraqis." Allawi's visit was part of a "Gulf tour" by Allawi, that was meant to signal to Iraqi voters that Allawi was "acceptable" to regional leaders. Some underlying issues would remain the same regardless of Iraq's leadership, and the Saudis would feel compelled to show more forward motion on Iraq following the elections irrespective of the election outcome -- especially given their growing concern about the Iranian threat.

Prince Muqrin indicated the Saudis would begin to signal their support for the Iraqiyya coalition. A directive had already been passed to the Saudi-controlled Al-Arabiyya to begin providing positive media coverage of Iraqiyya. The Saudis watched VP Hashimi's visit to the US very carefully, he posited, and were pleased to see how warmly he was received. In particular, the fact that he met with both President Obama and VP Biden made an impression.

In his 15 February 2010 meeting with Secretary Clinton, King Abdullah proclaimed that any future Saudi involvement in Iraq would be "public and transparent." While transparent is a stretch, this Saudi move was indeed very public. Whether the Saudis actually favor Allawi may be debatable, but his inclusive brand of politics and apparent willingness to flout Tehran certainly played well in Saudi Arabia. Allawi's visit provided an occasion for the Saudis to underscore their support for an "Arab" Iraq.

The US had stressed to the Saudis that their lack of involvement in Iraq was the surest way to guarantee the outcome they feared most -- an Iraq firmly locked into an Iranian orbit. While the King's stubborn distrust of Maliki remained, growing worries about Iran, may finally be getting through to his pragmatic side.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, after being re-elected in 2010, intensified sectarian policies of punishing Sunni Arabs who opposed his rule, violently squashing protests, and targeting senior Sunni political figures. Under Maliki, Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni Arab, was sentenced to death in 2012 by hanging for allegedly running death squads. In 2013, Maliki repeatedly ordered security forces to attack sit-ins by Sunni Arabs discontent with being shut out of political influence, jobs, and economic aid, killing dozens of protesters.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who has been in power in 2014, supported efforts to improve strained ties, but the road to normalisation was rocky. Iraq was caught in the dark storm of relations between Saudi Arabia and its regional rival Iran. Iraq is particularly vulnerable to the Iranian-Saudi feud, which threatens to deepen its own lingering sectarian conflict. Both states back opposing parties and groups in Iraq and pursue geopolitical interests in the country.

Saudi Arabia's endeavours to create a new Sunni-dominated "Islamic military alliance" devoted to fighting global terrorism, and plans to set up a "strategic cooperation council" with Turkey, are seen by Baghdad as primarily motivated by a regional rivalry with Iran. The Iran-backed Shia militias have been increasingly operating as the country's main military and political force.

On 01 January 2016 Saudi Arabia reopened its embassy in Baghdad in a move meant to help strengthen a regional alliance against the Islamic State group, which has seized territory in Iraq and Syria. Saudi Arabia had cut off diplomatic ties and closed its Baghdad embassy in 1990 after the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.

Saudi Arabia appointed an ambassador to Baghdad in 2016, but withdrew him 28 August 2016 following friction over remarks he made about Iran and its support for Shiite militia groups. Diplomat Thamer al-Sabhan had called for the exclusion of Shia paramilitary units from Iraq's campaign against ISIL. He said that Iranian-backed Shia paramilitary units were aggravating tensions with Sunni Muslims in Iraq. Sabhan repeatedly spoke of a "terrorist plot" to assassinate him after a Shia militia leader, Aws al-Khafaji, said in an interview with a local Iraqi channel that killing the diplomat would be an "honour".

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir made a historic visit to Baghdad 25 February 2017, marking the highest level visit by a Saudi official to Iraq since 1990. Jubeir met for several hours with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi as well as with Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. Jubeirs visit took many observers by surprise, amid lingering tensions between the two neighbors. It came as Iraqi government forces advance further into the mostly Sunni city of Mosul. The announcement that Saudi Arabia would name a new ambassador to Iraq appeared to mark a fresh effort to improve ties between Iraqs Shiite-dominated government and its large Sunni neighbor to the south.

In the past, Saudi policy sought to und ermine Iran's position in Iraq by seeking allies from among Iraq's oppositional spectrum, which are mainly Sunni. More recently, Riyadh tried to make inroads with Shia politicians and leaders from within the system, thereby fostering an acceptance of the post-2003 order. The Saudis came to the realisation that dealing with Iraq's Sunni figures alone is not enough. They felt the need to engage with senior Shia politicians, as well.

As part of Saudi Arabia's efforts to engage with Shia religious leaders, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (also known as MBS) met Iraqi Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr in Riyadh in July 2017. After Sadr had criticised Iran's influence over Iraq's domestic politics, and further challenged Tehran's sway in Iraq when he called for the demobilisation of the Iraqi Shia militias - regarded as Iranian proxies - observers saw the visit as a message from Riyadh to Tehran, that it too can forge connections with Iraq's Shia.

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Page last modified: 03-05-2018 18:18:20 ZULU