Saudi Arabia Seeks Rapprochement with Iraq

Saturday, January 17, 2015

ISIS Catalyzing a Thaw in Baghdad-Riyadh Relations

Ali Akbar Asadi
PhD in International Relations & Middle East Analyst

Saudi Arabia moved to close down its embassy in Iraq soon after the former Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, attacked and occupied its southern neighbor, Kuwait, in 1990. The lack of diplomatic relations between Riyadh and Baghdad has continued from that time for a period of a quarter of a century. Of course, not having diplomatic and political relations with Baghdad was logical and understandable for Iraq’s neighbors up to 2003 and in view of the aggressive and expansionist approach taken by the then Baathist Iraqi regime toward neighboring countries. However, continuation of that situation during the 12 years that have passed since the fall of Saddam has given rise to multitudes of assessments and has also elicited sharp criticism from analysts. At present, Saudi Arabia has apparently decided to reopen its embassy in Baghdad and has even dispatched a diplomatic delegation to take preliminary steps in this regard.

This comes at a time that Iraq is suffering from insecurity and is engaged in an all-out war with the terrorist group of ISIS. As a result, Saudi Arabia’s measure has raised various questions as to Riyadh’s new approach to Iraq. At the moment, the political structure and power pyramid in Iraq has not changed compared to past years and there have been also no major fundamental and strategic changes in the way that Iraq interacts with other countries. The country is even faced with the worst crisis of instability and insecurity in the past decade. So, the question is what factors have made Riyadh take positive moves in its relations with Baghdad?

Following the fall of Saddam, Saudi Arabia made no move to support the new political and democratic process in Iraq. On the contrary, Riyadh even made important efforts to undermine the political process and stability in Iraq, especially by lending its support to insurgent Sunni groups as well as Takfiri terrorist currents in the Arab country. The new power structure in Iraq and the present position of Shias at the center of that structure, in addition to improvement of relations between Iraq and the Islamic Republic of Iran were the main factors that made Riyadh adopt a totally negative and destructive approach toward the post-Saddam Iraq. During all these years, Saudi leaders have strongly believed that the new power structure in Iraq, especially the new chapter opened in Iran's relations with its western neighbor, will greatly change the balance of regional power to the detriment of Arab states. Therefore, Saudi government believed in the necessity of preventing new conditions in Iraq from becoming stable and allowing Baghdad to continue its new relations with Iran. Such an assessment of Iraq’s situation was definitely behind the growth of terrorist group like ISIS and helped them turn into an essential threat to the Iraqi government. However, the positive step that Riyadh has been recently taking to expand relations with Baghdad under the present circumstances can be considered as a turnabout in Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy toward Iraq.

Of course, an important factor that has been probably influential in Saudi Arabia’s adoption of this new policy is the new approach taken by the government of [the new Iraqi Prime Minister] Haider al-Abadi, who seeks to expand interactions with all neighboring countries, including Saudi Arabia. However, the main factor that has led Saudi officials to make their new decision can be nothing but the rise of ISIS as a new variable in regional and international political equations. In fact, the advent of ISIS has changed many regional and international equations and has, as such, led to serious changes in the understanding and assessment of the Saudi government of regional environment, including the situation in Iraq. The effect that the rise of ISIS has had on the regional policy of Saudi Arabia, especially with regard to Iraq, can be discussed from three angles.

The first angle is the fact that ISIS has turned into a critical and even essential threat to the government of Saudi Arabia after it managed to gain control of large swathes of land in Iraq and Syria, and even more importantly, after the group announced its Islamic caliphate led by the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Although Saudi Arabia tried to use terrorist groups as a tool to mount pressure on the new government of Iraq during the past years, the remarkable increase in the power of ISIS and announcement of its caliphate, has turned this group into a serious threat to national security of Saudi government. The fact that Saudi Arabia is neighboring Iraq and, in particular, existence of certain social grounds in Saudi Arabia, which may pave the way for the growth of ISIS in Saudi Arabia or at least help it win the sympathy of part of the Arab people, have helped make this terrorist group a major threat to Saudi government. As a result, the government of Saudi Arabia has come to grips with the reality and is trying to join hand with the government of Iraq in order to beat ISIS.

The second important angle is the intensification of international conditions to the detriment of extremist and terrorist groups in the Middle East. This has happened after the power of ISIS started to rise in the region and the United States decided to form an international coalition in order to fight this terrorist group. During past years, cooperation with or lending support to extremist groups had little, if any, cost for the Western and some regional countries. However, the intensification of international opposition to such groups has greatly increased the cost of possible cooperation with these groups with the purpose of using them as a tool. In addition, Saudi Arabia and other traditional allies of the United States in the Middle East have been forced to, even pretentiously, get aligned with Washington’s new policy for fighting ISIS. Under the present circumstances, any open and serious opposition to the United States policy in the region, especially on this issue, would deal severe blows to Saudi Arabia’s domestic and regional policies.

The third angle is about the relative impact that the rise of ISIS has had on old models of rivalry and cooperation in the Middle East as a result of which Saudi Arabia has been founding its regional role and position in great jeopardy. The emergence of ISIS threat as an important factor in regional equations has turned Iran into a pivotal player with objective capacities to fight ISIS. In addition, the overlap between the interests of Iran and the United States in fighting ISIS, and measures they have taken, though without coordination, have created new prospects for relations between  Iran and the West in the Middle East in the coming months and years. Such developments, in toto, have made it very difficult, if not impossible, for Saudi Arabia to continue its past policies in the region and have also undermined its ability to adopt radical policies vis-à-vis Iran and its regional allies. This is why Saudi Arabia has put on its political agenda reestablishment of diplomatic ties with Iraq as part of compulsory changes in the country’s regional policy and, in fact, in an effort to adapt its policies to new conditions that have come about following the rise of ISIS. Therefore, the reopening of Riyadh’s embassy in Baghdad may be a result of changing situation in Iraq, including changes in the political structure in the Arab country and may even be aimed at gaining new grounds in the face of Saudi Arabia’s regional rivals, including Iran. However, more than these factors, this measure is the beginning of a process of gradual reforms in Saudi policy to get more adapted to new conditions in the region in such a way as to reduce to minimum the existing threats to the national security of Saudi Arabia.

Key Words: Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Embassy, ISIS, Baghdad-Riyadh Relations, Post-Saddam Iraq, Haider al-Abadi, US, Middle East, Asadi

More By Ali Akbar Asadi:

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*Future Scenarios for Iraq and Iran's Strategy:

*Interactive Moderation Discourse in Iran's Foreign Policy:

*Photo Credit: AAWSAT.Net, UPI

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