The meeting of His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, with influential Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr is an important step towards reaching out to the leadership in Iraq. It is the second such trip in as many months for Al Sadr, who commands a huge following among Iraq’s urban population. The cleric had visited Saudi Arabia at the end of July to meet Mohammad Bin Salman Bin Abdul Aziz, the Saudi Crown Prince. The high-level meetings between the Iraqi leader and Arab Gulf leaders may be a precursor to a political dialogue among Iraq’s various ethnic and sectarian groups.
Earlier this year, Al Sadr had called on Syrian President Bashar Al Assad to “take a historic, heroic decision” and step down, to spare his country further bloodshed. While the move separated the leader’s position from that of Iran, it paved the way for other regional players to approach the Shiite cleric. Al Sadr’s influence as a key player in Iraq, who has long been publicly against Iranian influence in his country, is not lost on many. The cleric’s demands that the Iraqi government disband the Shiite militias, known collectively as the Popular Mobilisation Forces, further solidified his position as a rational player in the deeply divided polity of Iraq.
Al Sadr’s meeting with the Saudi crown prince may result in an agreement for likely Saudi investments in the Shiite regions of southern Iraq. The Saudis are also considering the possibility of opening a consulate in the Shiite city of Najaf. This comes close on the heels of Baghdad and Riyadh announcing the setting up of a coordination council to upgrade ties, as part of an attempt to heal troubled relations between the Arab neighbours. Riyadh reopened its embassy in Baghdad in 2015, following a 25-year break.
As parliamentary elections approach in Iraq (to be held next year), the country’s Shiite political groups are beginning to distance themselves from Iran, which has supported some of these groups in the past. Tehran has been trying to use its soft power in Baghdad for a long time to control the political system in the country, but as the Iraqi leadership comes of age, Tehran’s worries have started to grow. Al Sadr’s handshake with Saudi Arabia and the UAE can be broadly seen in this context. Both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are desirous to see a stable and prosperous Iraq. After years of dictatorship, war and sectarian skirmishes, Iraq’s re-entry into the comity of Arab nations is a welcome sign.