Veteran Arab journalist Abdel Bari Atwan says Saudi Arabia’s opening to Iraqi Shia leaders is aimed at weakening Iran’s influence in the region.
It came as a surprise to many in the Middle East – specifically in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Iran – to see Iraqi Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr pay an official visit to Saudi Arabia. Speculation is rife about the timing of the visit, and about its possible impact – for better or worse – on relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which are currently more tense than they have ever been.
The significance of the visit is that it came at the invitation of Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, as part of a new Saudi policy of building bridges to Iraqi Shia political and religious leaders as a way of reducing, or at least off-setting, Iran’s influence in Iraq.
Sadr controls a 34-member bloc in the Iraqi parliament and an armed militia which has over 60,000 fighters called Saraya as-Salam (The Peace Brigades). It was a major component of the Popular Mobilization Forces which fought alongside the Iraqi army to recapture Mosul from ISIS. The group was subjected to a concerted campaign of vilification in the Saudi and Saudi-controlled Arab media, which focused on its alleged abuses against Iraqi Sunnis and was blatantly sectarian in tone.
Last week, Iraqi Interior Minister Qasem al-Aaraji was also invited to Saudi Arabia for a meeting with the Crown Prince. Shortly before that, Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi paid a visit. Former premier Ayyad Al-Allawi and other Iraqi politicians are also expected in the kingdom in the next few days as part of its new outreach to Iraq and its political elites.
What all these Iraqi visitors to Saudi Arabia have in common, with the possible exception of Aaraji, is that they are not fully in accord with Iran, and are opposed to what they see as the excessive influence it wields in their country.
This is why they are being wooed by Saudi Arabia as it seeks to distance Iraq from Iran as much as a possible and bring it back into the Arab fold under its leadership now that the ISIS threat has been overcome and its capital in Iraq, Mosul, has been recovered.
Sadr’s visit to the kingdom and the high-profile reception he was accorded earned him fierce criticism from Iraqi officials and politicians, as well as some commentators in the Iranian media. They rebuked him for courting Saudi Arabia while it is waging a violent crackdown against its own Shia citizens in the Ihsa and Qatif districts of its Eastern Province, including last week’s quasi-military assault by the security forces on the town of al-Awamiya that caused the deaths of many local people, including by summary execution.
Supporters of Sadr’s visit say he opposes Saudi meddling in internal Iraqi affairs, but also rejects Iranian tutelage over Iraq. That makes him a potential mediator and bridge-builder in the ever-worsening disputes between the two sides, and also perhaps between the Saudi authorities and Shia opposition leaders in Qatif. Critics worry that the visit could fuel further divisions and political polarisation in Iraq, undermining the country’s chances of restoring national unity and proceeding towards a stage of peaceful political, material and social reconstruction.
Muhammad Bin Salman has now taken to playing the Arab nationalist tune in Iraq in response to Iran’s appeal to a shared Shia sectarian identity. Each side is trying to mobilise or attract to its camp those Iraqis who idenitfy with its discourse. This is a surprising new departure as far as Saudi Arabia is concerned. It reflects the new “secular” image the Saudi leadership is trying to project on the international stage, in line with the advice and approach of the UAE, its main partner in the four-country alliance blockading Qatar.
The main problem facing the Saudi crown prince as he attempts to “prize” Iraq away from Iranian control – as one source close to him put it – is that his political discourse on this issue has until now been overtly sectarian and hostile to the Shia as a religious denomination, whether in Iraq, Yemen, Iran or Syria. It will be difficult, if not impossible, to credibly adopt a diametrically opposed approach overnight.
In line with government policy, most of the Saudi media and the majority of the kingdom’s religious scholars have for years been vilifying, demonising and excommunicating the Shia and deeming them to be the principal enemies of the Sunnis. They routinely describe them as apostates, unbelievers, fire-worshippers and the children of pleasure-marriages.
So what must Saudi and Gulf citizens think now when they suddenly see their government rolling out red carpets for the top Shia figures in Iraq?
All these epithets and accusations must be forgotten, along with the disdain heaped on Iraqi Shia leaders, who should now be accepted as allies, brothers and co-religionists with whom there can be peaceful coexistence. The wars raging in Syria, Iraq and Yemen – which the kingdom waged on purely sectarian grounds, and spent billions of dollars on – must be halted. They are no longer vital existential struggles against evil enemies. In-depth political and intellectual discussions are needed to achieve solutions and compromises to resolve these conflicts and restore concord and coexistence to the extent possible.
To think that such a drastic change of discourse can be convincingly pulled off reflects political short-sightedness, naivety and arrogance. A policy of actively stoking venomous sectarianism cannot be replaced by one of championing religious and communal tolerance on a whim, or by pressing a button.
Some may argue that the Saudi leadership is acting out of genuine considerations which make it imperative to change policies and allies. But intelligent policy-making requires consistent long-term strategies, and cannot be based on excitable and impulsive reactions or a desire to settle scores or exact revenge.
I have always called for sectarian and ethnic coexistence based on equality and mutual respect, and opposed all forms of sectarianism. Many have denounced me, especially in Saudi Arabia, for taking such stands. I fervently hope that the Kingdom is truly changing course by reaching out to Iraqi Shia leaders and broadening its political horizons in Iraq. Perhaps it could go on to do the same with other foes in the region in order to bring an end to the bloody wars it is waging directly in Yemen or by proxy as in Syria.
Schemes to dismember the Arab world by stoking sectarian conflict, whose toxic and deadly seeds were directly or indirectly germinated by US military intervention over the course of the past 50 years, are the main cause of region’s current state of bankruptcy and near-collapse.
Saudi Arabia tried “Operation Decisive Storm” in Yemen. It launched a war in Syria. It backed another in Libya. It supported the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The outcomes in all cases proved disastrous for itself and the region. It is high time to try dialogue and coexistence, and apply as much wisdom and good sense as can be mustered. Opening up to Iraq could be a start.