Iraq’s Pre-election Optimism Includes a New Partnership with Saudi Arabia
Iraq’s Pre-election Optimism Includes a New Partnership with Saudi Arabia
A mother shops with her son in a residential neighborhood of Baghdad, Iraq, in March 2018. CRISISGROUP/Elizabeth Dickinson

Iraq’s Pre-election Optimism Includes a New Partnership with Saudi Arabia

After the defeat of the Islamic State in 2017, normality is returning to Iraq ahead of the 12 May parliamentary elections. In this Q&A, Crisis Group's Senior Analyst for the Arabian Peninsula Elizabeth Dickinson says the country’s cautious optimism includes hopes of a new partnership with Riyadh, balancing Baghdad’s strong ties with Tehran.

First: the facts. What is happening on 12 May, who is competing? And any prognosis as to the outcome?

This is the fourth time parliamentary elections will be held since Iraq adopted its new constitution in 2005. There have been several important constants: Shiite Islamist parties have invariably won; just as invariably, they have had to cobble together coalition-based governments because of political fragmentation; and whoever won the most votes did not end up as prime minister.

The situation this time around may not be very different. Fragmentation continues to define the political landscape; indeed, the Kurdish bloc’s unity is gone in the aftermath of the Kurdish independence referendum last September; Shiite parties have been unable to even present a veneer of cohesion; and the Sunnis are totally adrift. Yet there is little doubt that the Shiite bloc under Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has the best chances of winning the most votes. Whether this means he will be able to extend his tenure is uncertain. Government formation could take months if the past is any guide, and hard bargaining between competing Shiite groupings could produce a compromise candidate. Right now, the situation is fluid; anything is still possible.

One important difference in 2018 is that the Shiite militias that filled the security gap when the U.S. disbanded the army and other security institutions in 2003 have strengthened their presence thanks to the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), which gave them a new lease on life. Some of the Iran-backed leaders of these paramilitary groups – the Hashd al-Shaabi or Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs) – have entered politics to consolidate and capitalise on their prominence in the security realm. They formed an electoral list that could do well if the voting public decides to reward them for their service to the country in the past four years.

A street lined with photos and memorials of fighters who died in battle against ISIS, in Najaf, Iraq, in March 2018. CRISISGROUP/Elizabeth Dickinson

Is there a chance that things will start looking up in Iraq after almost four decades of war, sanctions, foreign occupation and chaos? 

Iraq enters elections in a moment of guarded optimism. Walking through Baghdad, it is difficult to recall that just a few years ago, ISIS swept through a third of the country’s territory and threatened the gates of the capital. Today, streets outside the Green Zone are safer than they have been in a while. As if in defiance of the occasional bombing, restaurants are packed in the evenings. Southern cities like Najaf and Basra are seeing renewed investor interest. Pockets of ISIS holdouts remain, especially in the north and west, but it’s generally safe to drive almost anywhere.

What is at stake in these elections is hope for a future of stability and growth, rather than just an end to conflict.

Yet the optimism is fragile. What is at stake in these elections is hope for a future of stability and growth, rather than just an end to conflict. If the new government moves forward with reconstruction, curbs pervasive corruption, better integrates paramilitary groups into state institutions, and downplays sectarian and ethnic agendas, Iraq could maintain its momentum. It is a tall order, and if the post-election leadership fails to consolidate the post-ISIS gains or even walks them back, the country could easily regress into conflict.

Iraq’s post-election government will have a new partner that may be able to help. After 25 years of severed ties, Saudi Arabia has reopened relations with its neighbour to the north. Many Western donors are cutting back their funding of Iraq’s budget, hoping that Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies, including the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, can help fill the gap.

Why did Saudi Arabia come back? And what do they want to see from the election?

A constellation of stars aligned to encourage both Saudi Arabia and Iraq to end their long estrangement. The first was leadership. Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, took a look at Iran’s growing influence around the region and saw Iraq as a key theatre to start rolling that back. They found a partner in Abadi, who made it clear that he did not answer to any foreign capital, whether Tehran, Washington, Ankara, or now Riyadh. Abadi’s resurgent brand of Iraqi nationalism appealed to Saudi leaders as a non-sectarian way to move the country’s politics forward.

If a new prime minister enters who is closer to Tehran, Riyadh may be less interested in engaging Baghdad.

Most important, there was a belated realisation in Riyadh that Iraq’s Shiites do not necessarily gravitate toward Iran and its theocratic form of government, and that they instead prize their sense of belonging to the Arab world. As one Iraqi parliamentarian told me: “To their amazement, the [Saudis] found that Iraqi Shiites are Arabs, that they do not follow [the Iranian regime’s] velayat-e faqih and that they want to build a modern civic state”.

Riyadh’s trust in Abadi (and his fellow Shiite nationalist politicians) means that this election could affect how, how much and even if Saudi Arabia contributes to reconstruction. If Abadi or someone like him is able to hold the premiership, we can expect the reconstruction of relations with Saudi Arabia to accelerate. If, however, a new prime minister enters who is closer to Tehran, Riyadh may be less interested in engaging Baghdad. Having said that, there is a strong case for better ties, regardless of who holds Iraq’s top office. Riyadh now realises that if they want Iraq to be independent and free from extremists, it is better to support – rather than isolate – the government in Baghdad.

Is Iran not the main external player in Iraq? How are they reacting to the bigger Saudi role?

First, let’s talk about Iraqis. The rapprochement with the Saudis has been widely welcomed; it is hard to find vocal critics at the moment. But that sentiment comes with a significant caveat: Iraqis do not want to become a battleground in the regional cold war between Riyadh and Tehran. If that is why the Saudis have come back, Iraqis say, they would prefer they leave again. There is a fundamental mismatch in Saudi and Iraqi expectations of the relationship, and from day one that is going to be a major challenge.

It is vital that Iraq stay out of regional tensions. But here again, there is reason for optimism. Saudi Arabia and Iran disagree on many political questions in Iraq – but there is a surprising amount of convergence on other issues. Both countries are committed to Iraq’s territorial unity; they both opposed the Kurdish independence referendum last year, for example, and they both want an Iraq that, while stable, remains relatively weak militarily lest it pose a regional threat once more. They both want the Iraqi economy to improve. They want to see reconstruction and prevent ISIS from making a comeback. They agree that the international oil price should edge a bit higher, and so do Iraqis, of course. These are major points of agreement that could form the basis of coexistence between the Saudis and Iranians in Iraq.

It is vital that Iraq stay out of regional tensions.

Of course, there are hardliners on both sides who would prefer some sort of escalation. Others in Iran simply doubt Riyadh can make a dent in Tehran’s influence, which was built up over fifteen years of persistent engagement. For now, however, Iraqis see the chance to be a bridge between warring neighbours – rather than an arena for contestation.

Have Saudi-Iranian tensions played out in the elections at all?

There have been no visible clashes or conflicts over the election, but there are subtle differences that may grow stark once the votes are in and efforts to cobble together a new government commence. While Tehran has no preference among a range of Shiite parties and candidates, it wants to preserve its security interests in Iraq through the PMUs. These are a major concern for Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies, which largely view these forces as a dangerous, Iran-backed non-state proxy similar to Hizbollah in Lebanon.

There are signs that both Tehran and Riyadh may welcome centrist prime ministerial candidates like Abadi. In the delicate period ahead, both regional powers may see someone like Abadi – who thrives less on provocation and more on consensus and regional balance – as the wiser choice. Iraqis, of course, have their own ideas about who they would like to see in office. Outside actors ought to stand back a bit in the coming weeks, so that the election results and the composition of the subsequent government reflect Iraqi preferences.

Are there other areas where Saudi Arabia and Iran might agree?

One of the areas that would be most important is reducing sectarian tensions, both in Iraq as well as the broader region. As part of re-engaging, Saudi Arabia has put a strong emphasis on reaching out to Shiite communities and religious figures. This is a surprising – and welcome – approach, which comes at a uniquely opportune moment. Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman has expressly stated that he wants to moderate Islamic discourse at home. Iraq, which is home to the holy city of Najaf and the religious leadership that guides most Shiites in the Gulf, provides an opportunity to prove that Riyadh is serious. If Saudi Arabia takes steps to dignify Shiite religious practice, discourages the persistent sectarian rhetoric among its Sunni clergy and carefully engages with clerical institutions in Najaf, the dynamic could really change for the better. Some in Iran would also welcome steps that take the edge off a regional sectarian narrative that they sense has spun out of control.

Riyadh will need strategic patience in order to build the influence it seeks – the kind of strategic patience that Iran has exercised since 2003.

But it is going to require real steps – not just talking, and not just handshakes. Saudi Arabia can start at home by following through with promises to ensure a more tolerant kingdom that stands firm against sectarian discrimination. As one Iraqi put it: “How many Iraqi Shiites would question Saudi intentions in Baghdad if their Shiite cousins in Saudi Arabia raved about religious freedom there?”

Saudi Arabia’s role in the Middle East has yielded mixed results. Should we be more hopeful about Iraq?

Saudi Arabia’s renewed engagement with Iraq has advantages compared to its actions elsewhere in the region. Closer ties with Iraq provide an opportunity for Saudi officials to apply lessons learned from less successful Saudi regional interventions, such as in Syria and Yemen. In Iraq, Saudi Arabia can play to its strengths, building political support and influence through economic incentives, while avoiding direct or proxy military action. Saudi political and economic re-entry can capitalise on and reinforce domestic trends in Iraq, namely an enduring anti-Iran sentiment and an appetite for balanced regional engagement.

Counter-intuitively, the fact that Saudi Arabia has very little influence today can work in favour of the relationship. Both sides will have to do the hard work of building trust and creating shared interests. The kingdom’s financial might give it leverage, but not enough to have things its way. Riyadh will need strategic patience in order to build the influence it seeks – the kind of strategic patience that Iran has exercised since 2003, when their American enemies were running the show.

After the elections, what should Saudi Arabia do as it returns to the Iraqi arena?

Iraq’s main priority is reconstruction, so that is where Saudi Arabia should focus. The kingdom can deploy resources and companies in a way few other donors can. But it is not as simple as just opening up the tap. Saudi Arabia is rightly wary of entrenched corruption in Iraq, so both sides will need to work through creative ways to finance projects without dropping money directly into government coffers. Riyadh will also need to be careful about regional sensitivities. Iraq has prioritised seven provinces most affected by ISIS for reconstruction, but so far, most investor interest is in stable areas. The devastated areas are in desperate need of help, and large camps of the displaced are seething with anger and a sense of abandonment. If Iraqi leaders fail to direct reconstruction funds to areas destroyed in the battle against ISIS, they risk alienating a significant portion of the country that they have just fought hard to win back.

Most of all, Saudi Arabia needs to take its cues from Iraqis about when, where and how to engage. Riyadh can begin by heeding Iraqis’ warnings and resist the temptation to see its investments in Iraq as a way to roll back Iranian influence. After years of warfare, sanctions and foreign occupation, Iraqis are understandably allergic to overbearing allies whose competition plays out on Iraqi soil. This is why Saudi Arabia will find it alienates – rather than wins over – any Iraqi it asks to choose sides.

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