Mina Al Oraibi
August 6, 2017
2017 has been a year of surprising headlines. Perhaps none more so than that of the visit of Moqtada Al Sadr, the Iraqi Shia cleric and leader of the populist Sadrist movement, to Jeddah last week. Greeted by Thamer Al Sabhan, the Saudi minister for Arabian Gulf affairs, who was withdrawn from Riyadh’s embassy in Baghdad last year due to heightened tensions between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, Mr Al Sadr went on to meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Although no media statements were given at the time, the picture of the two of them together spoke a thousand words. It reflected the possibility of the formulation of a new alliance in the region, with an active Saudi foreign policy in Iraq.
After years of fraught and disjointed ties, Riyadh and Baghdad are finding ways to engage with one another. Ironically, Mr Al Sabhan was withdrawn from Iraq due to his open criticism of the Popular Mobilisation Units last October, and was seen last week greeting Mr Al Sadr, the most outspoken critic of the Iranian-backed, state-mandated armed groups. An emergence of an alliance between those who want to limit Iran’s military influence in Iraq and find a framework to escape the sectarianism that is plaguing the region could be one of the Middle East’s most surprising and stabilising developments.
Mr Al Sadr’s trip comes after historic visits by officials from the two sides – starting with Adel Al Jubeir’s historic visit to Baghdad and culminating in Haider Al Abadi’s visit to Riyadh last May.
It would, of course, be naive to think that these visits alone will be able to heal the deep divides between the two nations. Momentum has now been built and needs to be solidified, before it unravels. Only two years earlier, when Saudi Arabia named its first ambassador to Baghdad in a quarter of a century, similar hopes were raised, only to be quickly dashed. However, this time the outreach is happening at the highest levels of Saudi decision-making.
Mistrust remains between the two countries, in part due to a severing of diplomatic relations after Saddam Hussein’s disastrous invasion of Kuwait 27 years ago. Official diplomatic exchanges were cut and many of Iraq’s then-opposition didn’t maintain the ties they fostered with Saudi officials during their years of exile.