Saudi Arabia and Federalism in Iraq

Monday, November 7, 2011

Ali Akbar Asadi, PhD Candidate
Department of International Relations, University of Allameh Tabatabaei

Saudi Arabia and Iraq are two important players in the Persian Gulf region whose relations have been constantly fluctuating in the past decades. Under the rule of Baath party in Iraq, relations between Baghdad and Riyadh went through many ups and downs. In 1970s, Saudi Arabia and Iran were major regional allies of the United States and the West, which tried to contain the power of Iraq as the main ally of the former Soviet Union. In 1980s, Saudi Arabia supported Iraq in its eight-year war against Iran. In 1990s and after Iraq invaded its southern neighbor, Kuwait, relations between Baghdad and Riyadh became critical. Subsequent to invasion of Iraq by the United States, bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia entered a totally new phase which was most importantly characterized by Saudi government’s negative approach to the new political establishment in Iraq.

Since Iraq is suffering from various ethnic and religious divides and represents a multiethnic and multi-religious society, one of the most important issues for the Iraqis in the new juncture of the country’s history was whether a centralized political system is better for Iraq, or a federal one. Various domestic and foreign players in Iraq have taken different approaches to this issue in proportion to their interests in the country. An important issue, however, has been the change in Saudi Arabia’s approach from opposing federalism in Iraq to supporting creation of Sunni-dominated regions in the country. Therefore, an important question about Saudi Arabia’s approach to Iraq is why Saudis have changed their approach from opposing federalism in Iraq to supporting Sunni minorities in various parts of the country? Three important factors can be enumerated in this regard.

The first factor pertains to Saudis general approach to Sunni Arabs in Iraq and their position in that country. Saudi Arabia has been angered by empowerment of Shias and Kurds in the power structure of post-Saddam Iraq. It believes that Sunnis should play a pivotal part in building the country’s new government. However, in view of Iraq’s democratic mechanisms and since Sunnis constitute a religious minority in the country, they can only have claim to a limited chunk of the country’s political power pie. As a result of this situation, Saudi leaders have done their best to achieve their goals in Iraq through political and even security means as well as political influence in the country. After Saudis failed to create their desired political structure in Iraq which would conform to their political views and, especially, after Sunnis failed to gain the main power, Saudi Arabia has preferred to see a non-centralized political system in Iraq under which Sunnis could enjoy high independence within their traditional regions.

The second factor is related to the type of bilateral relations between Iraq and Saudi Arabia after the fall of Saddam. Although Iraq has been able to establish cordial ties with such neighboring states as Iran and Turkey and in contrast to gradual détente with other Arab states, Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic relations and interactions with Iraq are still limited. Some Iraqis even consider Saudis as the main cause of insecurity and instability in their country. A host of various developments has prevented establishment of cordial relations between Baghdad and Riyadh. A main reason for tension is failure of Saudi officials to achieve their political goals in Iraq. As a result, Saudis have been pursuing policies which are at odds with stability of Iraq. Supporting federalism and making efforts to divide Iraq along various ethnic and religious lines is currently considered a way to serve Saudi Arabia’s large-scale goals and interests in Iraq.

The third factor is about Saudi Arabia’s understanding of Iraq’s foreign and regional policies which are at odds with those of Saudi Arabia in many areas. From the viewpoint of Saudi officials, the government of Iraq, which has been a major counterweight to Iran's regional influence in past decades, is now moving toward détente with Iran. This will disturb the regional power balance against the interests of Saudi Arabia. Saudi officials also believe that foreign policy approaches pursued by Iraq in such critical areas as Syria and Bahrain, are incompatible with those of Saudi Arabia. As a result, Saudis prefer to see Iraq’s political power divided within framework of federalism. They also like escalation of domestic rivalries and problems to prevent the central government in Baghdad from playing a substantive role in the region.

On the whole, it seems that despite its original approach, Saudi Arabia is now advocating establishment of Sunni-dominated regions in various Iraqi provinces due to the abovementioned domestic, bilateral and regional reasons. The Saudi officials, therefore, keep encouraging and supporting Sunni Iraqi leaders to move in this direction. Although Saudis are pursuing this policy as a result of the current situation in Iraq and special circumstances in the region, it may cause Iraq to be divided in medium and long terms. This will not only harm large-scale interests of Iraqi Sunnis (by depriving them of their share of the country’s oil revenues), but can also lead to regional challenges and crises. For instance, it may undermine positions and interests of three main players of the Persian Gulf region; that is, Iraq, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. As a result, distancing from negative and security-based competition in favor of more positive interaction and cooperation is the most serious option which may provide a solution to the existing problems.

More By Ali Akbar Asadi:

*Bahrain Crisis and Its Impact on Iran’s Relations to (P)GCC:’s_Relations_to_P_GCC.htm

*Challenges of US Military Presence in Iraq:

*Crisis in (P)GCC: Why Bahrain?:

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