Speaking at Chatham House in London earlier this month, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir described Iraq as an “Arab Gulf” country, adding: “We want to invest in Iraq, a wealthy country that needs to be rebuilt.” None of Iran’s state-run newspapers covered the speech, ignoring the highly significant thaw in Saudi-Iraqi relations, on the rise since King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz hosted Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al Abadi in Riyadh last June, and showing up for another summit this October. Taking their cue from the King, who treated Al Abadi with full honours of a head of state rather than just a premier, several Saudi firms have already jumped into action, like SABIC, a chemical manufacturing company now preparing to reopen its office in Baghdad. Last August, land borders were opened and commercial flights were resumed for the first time in decades, with Jubeir visiting the Iraqi capital of Baghdad in February. At least two Iraqi Shiite leaders are walking in their prime minister’s footsteps, crafting a friendship with Riyadh that not only frees them from Iranian tutelage ahead of parliamentary elections next April, but also gives them more room to manoeuvre in Iraqi domestics.
One is Moqtada Al Sadr, an influential cleric who Iran has been trying to mould into another Hassan Nasrallah since 2003. Al Sadr commands a powerful army, a network of schools, hospitals and charities, in addition to 30 seats in the parliament and important posts in the Al Abadi Government. Since he debuted 14 years ago, Al Sadr’s entire power base has been bankrolled by the Iranians. He started to distance himself slowly last April by calling on Iran’s top ally, President Bashar Al Assad of Syria, to step down, and then in July, went to Saudi Arabia for talks with Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman. Days apart, Shiite leader Ammar Al Hakim abandoned his hereditary post as chief of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, another Iran-created entity, forming the National Wisdom Movement that is being peddled on the streets of Baghdad as an “independent” party, free of Iranian influence”. In making the announcement, he denounced “militarisation of Iraqi society”, which is the very foundation that he, Al Sadr and other Iran-backed politicians created as a power base after the fall of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussain. And finally, last July, Iraqi Vice-President Nouri Al Maliki landed in St Petersburg — rather than Tehran — discussing ways to prevent “any foreign entity” from exerting too much influence in Iraqi politics. During his tenure as premier in 2006-2014, Al Maliki was considered Iran’s staunchest ally in the Arab world, but he too took a step back, furious with Tehran for abandoning him in favour of Al Abadi and for doing little to help him ward off the advances of Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) in Mosul and Tikrit. By reaching out to Russia, rather than Iran, Al Maliki too was sending a message to the Iranians — and Saudi Arabia.
Saudi King Salman had initiated the rapprochement with Iraq back in 2015, offering to help the war-torn country rid itself of Daesh. The Saudis offered full-engagement only if Iraqi leaders distanced themselves from the mullahs of Tehran. It took two years for that to happen, and a variety of different reasons. For Al Sadr, Iranian money stopped coming since the outbreak of the Syrian conflict in 2011. Iran preferred to fund more effective proxies in the Syrian battlefield, like Hezbollah, prompting him to sulk since last spring. The same applies to Hakim, who carries the burden of a party founded in Tehran by his father and uncles back in the 1980s, whose members once fought the official Iraqi army during its long war with Iran. That was good news under Saddam, but the longer this stigma lasts, the more difficult it will be for him to appeal to non-Shiites in Iraq.
Although his office came out with a carefully crafted statement, Al Abadi himself said nothing when US Defence Secretary Rex Tillerson commented from Riyadh earlier this week: “Certainly, Iranian militias that are in Iraq, now that the fight against Daesh is coming to a close, those militias need to go home.” He only described the Popular Mobilisation Units as “part of Iraq’s institutions”, defending the quasi-army, rather than Iran itself.
Unlike Al Maliki, Al Abadi has appealed to a far wider and mixed section of Iraqi society, although both men are Shiite statesmen with a joint history in the all-Shiite Dawa Party. When chosen for the job in 2006, Al Maliki was an unrefined upstart with humble origins, who emerged from a colourless exile in Syria to lead his country for seven long years. Al Abadi, however, was born into the secular high class of Baghdad, growing up in the mixed Karrada neighbourhood, where he befriended plenty of Sunnis, breaking all stereotypes on both sides of the spectrum. He went to school with well-to-do Christians and Sunnis, thanks to an enlightened father named Jawad Bey, head of the Baghdad Neurology Hospital. Al Abadi studied electrical engineering at the University of Manchester, from where he holds a PHD — Al Maliki, however, never travelled during his teens, spending quality time in a village in the Karbala Governorate and studying at Baghdad University during the high years of Baathism.
In short, Al Abadi is better equipped than many of his peers in reaching out to Iraqi Sunnis. He, Al Sadr, Hakim and Al Maliki are starting to think of pan-Iraqi leadership rather than their narrow positioning as warlords and Shiite commanders. Saudi Arabia can take them into parts of Iraqi society that no Iranian diplomat can ever reach. They probably realise that will have to take a back seat in the upcoming period, in order to survive the storms of the Donald Trump White House. This policy is tricky, and may backfire — like it did with Subhi Al Tufayli, the Iran-backed former secretary-general of Hezbollah. He parted ways with the Iran-backed group in 1984, thinking that Iran was bound to lose its war with Iraq. Too vocally critical of Iran to make a comeback, he was politically demolished by Tehran in the years that followed. Al Abadi will never walk that path, standing at arms-length — for now — between Tehran and Riyadh.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also the author of Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad.