Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman during a meeting with Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr in Jeddah, last month. Image Credit: Reuters

Baghdad: It was an unusual meeting: An Iraqi Shiite cleric openly hostile to the US sat in a palace sipping juice at the invitation of the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Washington’s main ally in the Middle East.

For all the implausibility, the motivations for the July 30 gathering in Jeddah between Moqtada Al Sadr and Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman Bin Abdul Aziz run deep, and centre on a shared interest in countering Iranian influence in Iraq.

For Al Sadr, who has a large following among the poor in Baghdad and southern Iraqi cities, it was part of efforts to bolster his Arab and nationalist image ahead of elections where he faces Shiite rivals close to Iran.

For Prince Mohammad, the meeting — and talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi in June — is an attempt to build alliances with Iraqi Shiite leaders in order to roll back Iranian influence.

“Al Sadr’s visit to Saudi Arabia is a bold shift of his policy to deliver a message to regional, influential Sunni states that not all Shiite groups carry the label ‘Made in Iran’,” said Baghdad-based analyst Ahmad Younus.

This policy has assumed greater prominence now that Daesh has been driven back in northern Iraq, giving politicians time to focus on domestic issues ahead of provincial council elections in September and a parliamentary vote next year. Ultimately, Al Sadr seeks a leadership role in Iraq that would allow him to shape events without becoming embroiled in daily administration, which could erode his popularity, diplomats and analysts say.

Visit to UAE

Days after the Jeddah meeting, Al Sadr met His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, who has also taken an assertive line against Tehran, the dominant foreign power in Iraq since the 2003 US invasion ended Sunni minority rule.

Iran has since increased its regional influence, with its forces and allied militias spearheading the fight against Daesh in Iraq and Syria and holding sway in Baghdad. “There are plans to secure peace and reject sectarianism in the region,” Al Sadr told the Saudi-owned Asharq Al Awsat newspaper last week, saying that it was “necessary to bring Iraq back into the Arab fold”.

When asked what Saudi Arabia hoped to achieve with Al Sadr’s recent visit to the kingdom and the UAE, a Saudi official at the Saudi embassy in Washington said: “Saudi Arabia hopes to encourage Iraqis to work together to build a strong resilient and independent state. With that in mind, it will reach out to any party who could contribute to achieving that goal.” Washington supports the Saudi-Iraq rapprochement, but the embracing of Al Sadr raises questions about whether it sees a man known for his anti-Americanism as a reliable figure.

“His visits to the region, and broadly the high-profile visits by Iraq, those things broadly are good, in that they get Iraq facing the Gulf nations and they help to turn their attention away from Iran,” a US official said.

US reaction positive

A second US official said that Washington viewed the visits positively, “not because we’re Al Sadr fans but because we’ve been pushing Saudi Arabia to mend fences and open gates with Iraq”.

A politician close to Al Sadr said the Jeddah meeting was aimed at building confidence and toning down sectarian rhetoric between the two countries.

The rapprochement is “a careful testing of the waters with the Al Abadi government and some of the Shiite centres of influence like Al Sadr and the interior minister,” said Ali Shihabi, executive director of the Washington-based Arabia Foundation.

Al Sadr’s office said there was an agreement to study investment in Shiite regions of southern Iraq. Riyadh will also consider opening a consulate in Najaf, Al Sadr’s base.

Saudi Arabia would donate $10 million (Dh36.7 million) to help Iraqis displaced by the war on Daesh in Iraq, Al Sadr said, while Iraq’s oil minister said Riyadh had discussed building hospitals in Basra and Baghdad.

After the Saudi trip, Al Sadr again urged the Iraqi government to dismantle the Tehran-backed Shiite paramilitary groups involved in the fight against Daesh — a theme that is expected to become a top election issue.

A source from Al Sadr’s armed group told Reuters that after the visit orders were issued to remove anti-Saudi banners from its headquarters, vehicles and streets.

The Saudi Minister of State for Gulf Affairs, Thamer Al Subhan, called for tolerance after greeting Al Sadr, using Twitter to decry “Sunni and Shiite extremism”.

Saudi Arabia this week cracked down on Twitter users, including a radical Sunni cleric who published insulting comments about Shiites.

As part of the wider detente, Iraq and Saudi Arabia announced last month they are setting up a council to upgrade strategic relations.

The Saudi cabinet has approved a joint trade commission to look at investment while a Saudi daily reported the countries planned to reopen a border crossing shut for more than 25 years — a point raised by Al Sadr on his visit.

Brett McGurk, US special envoy for the coalition against Daesh, tweeted earlier on Wednesday that he had visited the Iraq-Saudi border: “Closed since ‘90. ISIS [Daesh] attacked in ‘15.

Today: secure, reopen, bustling w/1200 pilgrims per day.” Another sign of rapprochement is an agreement to increase direct flights to a daily basis. Iraqi Airways hopes to reopen offices at Saudi airports to help Iraqis travel to the kingdom, especially for pilgrimages, Iraq’s transport ministry said.