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The Middle East in Chaos: Of Orders and Borders
The Middle East in Chaos: Of Orders and Borders

The Middle East in Chaos: Of Orders and Borders

Originally published in Al-Sharq Forum

As Middle Eastern societies start pulling themselves out of conflict, as Iraq seems to be doing today, this is the challenge they must face: to refashion social contracts and establish governing structures able to equitably accommodate a highly diverse population’s needs and peacefully manage territorial disputes with neighbors.

When they meet with trauma and survive it, a people’s aspiration to surmount it and prevent its recurrence does not die. On the contrary: it gains strength over time, despite setbacks – sometimes of the disastrous variety – until a time arrives that offers the chance to break through externally imposed barriers and realise long-nourished dreams. But success is not guaranteed. A people’s agency – their willingness to struggle and make sacrifices – may be essential in the achievement of their goals, but it alone does not suffice. The ever-shifting geopolitical environment, too, will play a role in shaping the outcome.[fn]This essay is a spin-off from a larger piece, as yet unpublished, about the MENA region’s increasingly intersecting conflicts; some text may overlap. Views expressed herein are entirely my own.Hide Footnote

Two recent examples: the Iraqi Kurds’ September 2017 independence referendum, which proved to be a colossal misjudgment of timing; and the failed Arab uprisings, which sought to upend the state systems created in the aftermath of the Ottoman Empire’s collapse (and which have evolved in the hundred years since but were dysfunctional throughout and, ultimately, had lost their last thin shred of legitimacy). These two sets of events were separate but also related: the collapsing Arab state order encouraged the Kurds to believe they could press forward with their statehood ambition. They also have the same progenitor: the chaos that resulted from the First World War and disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, which, increasingly dysfunctional itself, nonetheless provided a sense of order to its denizens for centuries.

Borders and Their Victims

The Kurds, one of the world’s largest non-state nations, were clear victims of the imperial powers’ manipulations and, in their view, treachery.

To the victor the spoils, to the vanquished the deepest of grudges fed by unconsummated revenge. The victorious powers, Britain and France, started carving up the empire’s remains well before the fight had ended. They bickered over borders for some years from the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement onward, finally settling on the arrangement that survives today. They broke their promises to subject populations almost as fast as they made them; in many cases, these were not real promises but mere ideas floated in the heat of bargaining and drawing lines on paper. The Kurds did not get a state of their own, as they had demanded and thought they had been promised, while the Arab “nation” was divided into various states, their borders defined by imperial interests that separated family from family and tribe from tribe – access to water and oil being primary drivers. Turkey emerged as a rump state broken off from the empire; yet, fueled by a new nationalist fervor under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, it was able to curb both its adversaries’ territorial ambitions and the Kurds’ quest for independence.[fn]For a concise conceptual approach to this period, see Toby Dodge, “The Danger of Analogical Myths: Explaining the Power and Consequences of the Sykes-Picot Delusion”, LSE Middle East Centre Blog, 28 September 2016, at: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/mec/2016/10/10/the-danger-of-analogical-myths-explaining-the-power-and-consequences-of-the-sykes-picot-delusion/; and Nicholas Danforth, “The Kurds, Sykes-Picot and Quest for Redrawing Borders”, Bipartisan Policy Center, 10 February 2016, at: https://bipartisanpolicy.org/blog/kurds-sykes-picot-redrawing-borders/. For a history, see James Barr, A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle that Shaped the Middle East (London: Simon & Schuster, 2011).Hide Footnote

The Kurds, one of the world’s largest non-state nations, were clear victims of the imperial powers’ manipulations and, in their view, treachery. Offered the prospect of a state in the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres – in a geographic area that did not encompass the majority of Kurds – they were denied it only three years later in the Treaty of Lausanne. In the architecture of the new Middle East, they became four separate Kurdish minorities: in Turkey, Iran and the newly formed Arab states of Iraq and Syria. Their subsequent history has been one of struggle for rights and secession, for separate independence or belated unification into a single overarching Kurdish state.

Their motivation is easy to understand: tribes, clans and families were torn asunder by new borders; shepherds could no longer take their flocks from northern Syria’s lowlands to their habitual summer pastures in the mountains of south-eastern Turkey; merchants encountered uncustomary customs fees to trade within their own society; political association and representation were permitted only if they entailed fealty to a central state experienced as alien and habitually hostile; and any dissent – in particular any expression of cross-boundary Kurdish nationalism – was violently suppressed. Whatever they thought of the post-WWI borders, to Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria these borders became sacrosanct; they viewed any attempt to erase them as an existential threat and a cause for banding together despite their deep political, ideological and geostrategic differences.[fn]The best general historical work on the Kurds remains David McDowall, A Modern History of the Kurds. London: I.B. Tauris, 2000.Hide Footnote “Partition” (taqseem) became the most hated word in the Arab vocabulary.[fn]In Turkish, the term is bölünmek – partition; in Farsi, it is jodayee talabi – separatism/irredentism. Both carry a strongly negative connotation.Hide Footnote

The Arabs gained statehood, but the decades-old aspiration articulated by Arab nationalists for a single entity bound by language, culture and history was thwarted.[fn]See Ernest Dawn, “The Origins of Arab Nationalism,” in Rashid Khalidi, Lisa Anderson, Muhammad Muslih and Reeva Simon, eds., The Origins of Arab Nationalism (1991), pp. 3-30.Hide Footnote They resented the – in their view –arbitrary nature of the borders imposed on them, and they resisted Britain’s declared intent to create a Jewish homeland on Arab soil as a particularly insidious attempt at keeping them divided. Fired up by such iniquities, pan-Arabism enjoyed mass appeal during a major part of the 20th century. It was fed by secular elites who, at times, tried to give it concrete expression, and a jump-start, by joining their state with another in which they detected similar aspirations: Egypt and Syria, Iraq and Jordan, and similar efforts. These projects invariably were short-lived, if they got off the ground at all. What is more, over time the ruling elites essentially bought into the borders they had inherited, and heartily embraced the separate Iraqi, Syrian, Jordanian, Egyptian, etc., identities that distinguish the states of the modern Middle East.[fn]Of course, there are exceptions. Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait was driven by a rejection of that particular border and of Kuwait’s independent status instead of being Iraq’s 19th province.Hide Footnote

Secular elites went into decline and new ideologies came to the fore, led by Islamists whose aspiration was pan-Islamic more than pan-Arab; in other words, ethnically color-blind.

The Arab armies’ defeat in the 1967 war, humiliatingly labelled the “six-day war”, was the turning point. It showed that pan-Arabism had failed (it was replaced by Palestinian nationalism for some time).[fn]See Walid Kazziha, Revolutionary Transformation in the Arab World: Habash and his Comrades from Nationalism to Marxism (London: Charles Knight & Co., 1975).Hide Footnote Secular elites went into decline and new ideologies came to the fore, led by Islamists whose aspiration was pan-Islamic more than pan-Arab; in other words, ethnically color-blind, in principle uniting Arabs, Turks, Kurds and others under a Muslim banner. Their first political expression was the Muslim Brotherhood, a group with origins in Egypt but sprouting ideologically likeminded confrères throughout the MENA region. Blocked by entrenched secular regimes supported by the West, they survived mainly by eschewing overt politics.[fn]The Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan was an exception. The Hashemite king brought the group into politics in the early 1970s when he felt his reign threatened by Palestinian nationalism – a fine example of effective co-optation.Hide Footnote They also experienced a degree of radicalization, as frustrated youths gravitated to battlefields in Afghanistan in the 1980s and, later, post-U.S. invasion Iraq. Here they gained organizing and fighting skills, and built a reputation as heroes who stood up to foreign invaders, a model many at home wished they could emulate. In their most extreme organizational manifestation, the Islamic State, they aimed to restore the caliphate that Ataturk had abolished following the Ottoman Empire’s demise.[fn]For an overview of modern jihadism, see Crisis Group Special Report N°1, Exploiting Disorder: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, 14 March 2016. Also see, Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, “The Militarization of Islamism: Al-Qā‘ida and Its Transnational Challenge,” The Muslim World, Vol. 10, No. 2 (April 2011), pp. 307-23.Hide Footnote

When the Arab uprisings broke out in 2011, protesters were propelled not by the injustice or arbitrariness of their countries’ borders but by the nature of their governing arrangements; these had bred nepotism, cronyism and other forms of corruption, and increasingly failed to provide services and distribute the fruits of whatever growth took place (which differed from country to country, with most wealth accumulating in the Gulf states). The quest for a change in borders came from two limited quarters: the Kurds, who had none of their own and had suffered grievously in their century-long pursuit of statehood; and adherents of the Islamic State, who celebrated their June 2014 breach of the Iraqi-Syria border as the first step toward the establishment of a worldwide Islamic caliphate that would transcend nation-states. That both groups failed attests to the durability, as opposed to the alleged artificiality, of borders in the MENA region.

How are borders changed? If history is a guide, boundary changes, especially when contested, result mainly from dramatic events that overturn more than just borders – such as the dissolution of an empire – with clear winners and losers. The First World War was one such earth-shaking set of events; so was the Second World War, which resulted in the creation of the European Union – an incremental consolidation of nation-states into a single unit, with respective borders partially erased over time. The war’s outcome also led to the partitioning of Germany into two separate states; they reunited peacefully only when the Soviet Union collapsed more than four decades later. The USSR’s dissolution also allowed Czechs and Slovaks to part ways – amicably. Elsewhere, new states and borders were forged in war, such as in the Balkans and Sudan/South Sudan. Even within Europe, separatist tendencies, long contained for the havoc everyone knew they can cause, have again begun to gather steam. Witness developments in Spain/Catalonia in 2017.[fn]A particularly tricky problem presents itself when the border is a natural waterway, whose course changes over time. Although the Netherlands and Belgium do not have a visible border in most places – only road signs announcing that you have just crossed it – one part of it is the Maas/Meuse. After the river bed shifted, and following lengthy negotiations, that part of the border was changed by mutual agreement in November 2016. See, Washington Post, 29 November 2016, at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/11/29/netherlands-and-belgium-to-end-lawless-border-oddity-by-swapping-land-peacefully/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.12755c68b8de. These negotiations took place between two very close allies within the overarching structure of the European Union. Compare this with the Shatt al-Arab that divides southern Iraq from Iran, its shifting course, the intermittent negotiations and short-lived agreements over the border’s exact locations, and the conflict for which its contested nature provided a pretext: the Iran-Iraq war.Hide Footnote

If anything, Kurds are avid students of history and geography, their main objective being to understand what convergence of factors would help deliver a state of their own, and when. They have repeatedly engaged in alliances with greater powers in the hope that the latter, in exchange for the benefits they derived from the alliance, would support the Kurdish quest for independence.[fn]The Kurds’ plight is that greater powers see an alliance with them almost invariably as tactical, whereas the Kurds see it as strategic. See Joost Hiltermann, “They Were Expendable”, London Review of Books, 17 November 2016.Hide Footnote When Iraqi Kurdish leaders saw Iraq weakened after 2003, Syria dissolve into civil war after 2011, and Turkey taking a self-destructive turn after 2015; and when they successfully exploited Western states’ need for local ground forces in fighting the Islamic State after 2014 by providing such manpower and garnering, in return, military hardware and training, as well as political support and sympathy, they thought their moment had come.

In September 2017, Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish region in Iraq, brushed aside all objections, including from those same allies – the United States, European governments, and Turkey – and ignored the threats of his adversaries – the federal government in Iraq, as well as Iran. Yet, in his zeal he misevaluated the enduring strength of nationalist currents in Iraq and Syria, Turkey’s leverage over the Kurds’ revenue stream from oil exports, Iran’s determination to deploy proxy forces to prevent the Kurds’ departure from Iraq, and Washington’s willingness to condone the above actors’ combined counter-measures due to its overriding interest in maintaining Iraq’s territorial unity. Instead of gaining the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan, Kurdish leaders were forced to withdraw their security forces from Iraqi territories, including Kirkuk, whose oil wealth would have constituted the engine of economic self-reliance, setting back their political aspiration by decades.[fn]See Joost Hiltermann and Maria Fantappie, “Twilight of the Kurds”, Foreign Policy, January 2018.Hide Footnote

A defining feature of the order created by Britain and France was their understanding of Middle Eastern societies as essentially a conglomeration of ethnic and confessional communities bereft of a larger organizing principle.

The Islamic State’s territorial ambition was likewise defeated, but by different means. It was stranded in the group’s strategic decision to launch its project from a territorial base – rather than trying to build a geographically dispersed movement that would be more difficult to target, such as al-Qaeda and its various affiliates have done. In late 2017, ISIS fighters had largely been driven from Iraq and Syria and the border restored. The group may yet survive, feeding on the grievances that once gave rise to it, but it is unlikely that it can soon embark on another attempt to restore the caliphate through conquest of territory.

Neither group should be expected to abandon its aspirations. Yet if they have learned from their respective failures, they will choose a different means to improve their prospects while waiting for the golden moment.

Orders and Their Disorder

Once they had carved up the post-Ottoman Middle East by establishing the new states’ borders, Britain and France set about shaping the political order within each set of boundaries, in all cases installing pliant regimes.[fn]In the case of most of the smaller Gulf states, decolonization did not happen till the early 1970s.Hide Footnote These were partly fashioned in their own image: monarchies in the case of British-mandated states, republics in those managed by France. For Britain, the resort to the Hashemites as rulers of Iraq and Jordan was a reward for their support during the fight against the Ottomans in Arabia; both they and the form of government over which they presided were alien to the subject populations; in Iraq, they lasted for 35 years, in Jordan until today.[fn]See Peter Sluglett, “An improvement on colonialism? The ‘A’ mandates and their legacy in the Middle East,” International Affairs, Vol. 90, No. 2 (2014), pp. 413-427.Hide Footnote

A defining feature of the order created by Britain and France was their understanding of Middle Eastern societies as essentially a conglomeration of ethnic and confessional communities bereft of a larger organizing principle and which therefore could not be expected to congeal into coherent states. They played on these differences with an imperial divide-and-rule strategy, favoring minority groups, and especially religious minorities, to prevent majorities from gaining power and pursuing a more independent course: the Jews in Palestine, Alawites in Syria, and Kurds in Iraq.

The new states’ paths to formal independence varied in length, but their dependence on Western metropoles (and in some cases during the Cold War on the Soviet Union) for military protection was long-lasting; in exchange, they offered what Western states wanted most: access to resources, loyalty (and suppression of nationalist sentiment, which the USSR exploited), allegiance and even material support in war (for example, over Kuwait), and a peace treaty with Israel.

Over time, pliant regimes gave way to unreliable ones, depending on who was in charge; the societies themselves were in constant flux, and the world around them underwent dramatic change in the span of a century. Indeed, the post-Ottoman Arab experience is a chronicle of societies seeking to cope with constant interference from more powerful outside actors, part despised for their neo-colonial exploitation of natural resources and support of authoritarian regimes enabling it, part desired for their modernizing attributes; and to resist them or, when possible, to transform them and make them their own. The hybrid nature of the states that resulted – partly driven by imperial interests, partly reflecting pre-existing local structures and practices – introduced a persistent legitimacy crisis that, like all chronic ailments, may prove the post-Ottoman order/disorder’s undoing.

In a hundred years, the region experienced a gamut of political and ideological experiments, but almost invariably state systems, whatever their ideological veneer, were based on minority rule, militarized and repressive, and brooked no opposition to outside powers’ extractive hunger. Military coups became the preferred means to gain power, especially in the late 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Autocratic rulers used military-security institutions to control societies, which crushed political life and, in a vicious cycle, disabled mechanisms ensuring the peaceful and regular rotation of power. Military rule became endemic. As regimes changed by force, civil institutions built by the colonial powers, such as national parliaments, courts and judicial authorities, however deficient, became degraded; this removed any semblance of checks and balances or technocrat-driven service provision, and left in place unaccountable kleptocracies fed directly or indirectly by oil rents.

As Middle Eastern societies were transformed, they gradually lost their creators’ defining imprint. It would be wrong today to blame these societies’ many ills on the governing structures they originally received. They assumed lives of their own, with their own internal struggles over ideology, politics and resource allocation. Yet these lives were also shaped in constant interaction with an outside world that was economically and militarily much stronger. This led to outside “problem solving” through military interventions, sometimes by invitation (most recently, Russia in Syria in 2015) but more often not (Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011 are recent examples). External interventions almost invariably compounded the dysfunctionality of governance rather than improving it.

The 2011 Arab uprisings exposed their societies’ deep fault lines and failures in governance, but the “people in the squares” in turn lacked the will and organization to provide an alternative vision; in most cases, their experiments in popular mobilization were either crushed or diluted, or they dissolved in civil war as beleaguered police states escalated repression. Yet the quest for a better functioning state system persists in the Middle East; the absence of a solution merely invites a more vigorous popular rerun down the line. And the appropriate answer can be generated only from within each society; anything less will be as dysfunctional and vulnerable to external interference.

Better Orders Through Different Borders?

The popular uprisings’ unhappy outcome allowed non-state actors to exploit the ensuing chaos to press their own ambition to modify and even erase borders they long rejected. These were two very different groups: the Islamic State and the Kurds. Both failed to achieve their objective.

Of the two, the Kurds’ goal arguably was the less ambitious – even if it also has proved unattainable until now: having been denied statehood a century ago, Kurdish leaders never wanted more than what in their view everyone else already had: a state of their own. This would have entailed an adjustment of existing borders to accommodate a large minority population, and therefore a reduction in size of the Kurds’ “host” states Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. None accepts being truncated, and internal turmoil in Iraq and Syria, in particular, has not produced a situation in which the Kurds could succeed.

The Islamic State had the larger ambition of creating a caliphate for Muslims worldwide. This would have required demolishing borders not just in the Middle East but much further afield. It would be a mistake to underestimate the potency and lasting appeal of such an ideological project, or the strength of jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda that are working patiently toward that goal. Yet it is difficult to see how it can succeed in a highly diverse Muslim world, with plenty of countervailing forces with greater or lesser local legitimacy.

Of course, borders will change again, including in the Middle East, but it may take another earth-shaking event before that happens. In the meantime, the answer to unjust borders may have to come from the construction of better functioning political arrangements within them, based on revamped post-conflict social contracts and outfitted with governing structures able to equitably accommodate a highly diverse population’s needs and to peacefully manage territorial disputes with neighbors. This, too, may look as if it is an unrealistic goal. But as Middle Eastern societies start pulling themselves out of conflict, as Iraq seems to be doing today, this is a question they must address. The way in which they answer it will determine the nature of the region’s future orders and borders.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman al-Saud (R) meets with Leader of the Sadrist movement Muqtada al-Sadr (L) in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on 30 July 2017. Bandar Algaloud / Saudi Royal Council / Handout / Anadolu Agency

Saudi Arabia: Back to Baghdad

Saudi Arabia has been forging links to Iraq since reopening its Baghdad embassy in 2016. Its adversary Iran has strong Iraqi ties. If Riyadh avoids antagonising Tehran, invests wisely and quiets anti-Shiite rhetoric, Iraq can be a bridge between the rival powers - not a battleground.

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What’s new? After a quarter-century of estrangement, Saudi Arabia has re-opened diplomatic relations with Iraq in an attempt to counter strong Iranian influence. The kingdom seeks a role in post-ISIS reconstruction and has set about forging new political alliances.

Why does it matter? The Saudi approach to Iraq could offer a sustainable model of patient, long-term engagement. A new approach in Iraq may persuade Riyadh that leveraging its economic and cultural capital – rather than military force and zero-sum politics – will better serve its strategic interests and reduce growing tensions in the region.

What should be done? In projecting its influence in Iraq, Riyadh should resist the temptation to transform the country into the latest battleground in a cold war with Tehran. All of Iraq’s bilateral partners should see the country’s stability as their vital interest and work constructively to achieve it.

Executive Summary

Saudi Arabia is re-engaging with Iraq after nearly a quarter-century of broken ties. The rapprochement began in 2016, sharply accelerated in mid-2017 and stands to move even faster after Iraq’s general elections in May 2018, particularly if politicians open to reconnecting with Saudi Arabia succeed in forming a government. Riyadh’s strategy is to ride a wave of Iraqi national pride, reinvest economically and build relationships across ethnic and confessional lines. If its objective is to roll back Iran’s influence in Iraq, however, it will find that many Iraqis – even those who are critical of Iran’s overweening influence – view that as a red line, a way of turning their country back into an arena of regional combat. If it moves too fast and favours infusions of cash over carefully calibrated and targeted economic assistance, it will fuel rather than curb rampant corruption. And it will need to silence sectarian rhetoric to reach out across Iraq’s ethnic and religious spectrum.

Iraqis from various political, confessional and social groups say they welcome the apparent course change. In part, their enthusiasm stems from necessity. The new relationship comes amid a rare international consensus that the calm in Iraq must be consolidated, lest the country regress into violent conflict. The Islamic State (ISIS) has been purged from most Iraqi territory, national pride is swelling and investor confidence is up. Yet if the government and its partners cannot produce a tangible peace dividend, secure liberated areas, and end a cycle of sectarian and ethnic retribution, those gains could easily be reversed. Western partners have already started walking back their financial commitments, hoping their Gulf allies will fill the gap.

Saudi political and economic re-entry can capitalise on and reinforce domestic trends in Iraq, namely growing anti-Iran sentiment and an appetite for balanced regional relations.

Saudi Arabia’s renewed engagement with Iraq has advantages compared to its actions elsewhere in the region. Iraq provides an opportunity for Saudi officials to apply lessons learned from less successful interventions 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 growing anti-Iran sentiment and an appetite for balanced regional relations.

Counter-intuitively, the fact that Riyadh is starting from a low base could be a blessing in disguise. Both sides must do the hard work of rebuilding trust, creating a network of contacts and courting public opinion. The kingdom’s financial might gives it leverage, but not enough to have things its way. Riyadh will need strategic patience in order to build the influence it seeks.

Riyadh can contribute to Iraq’s stabilisation, but the relationship will have to navigate a minefield of obstacles. The first is the most fundamental: Saudi Arabia’s renewed interest in engaging with Iraq overtly derives from a desire to counter Iranian influence. Yet Iraqis want and need to prevent their country from becoming yet another theatre for Saudi-Iranian hostilities. Calibrating the speed of engagement also will be a challenge. Iraqis want to see immediate, tangible gains from Saudi Arabia’s return. But if Riyadh tries to do too much, too soon, it could become mired in bureaucracy and corruption – or even provoke an Iranian reaction. Both Saudi Arabia and Iraq will need to break old habits, such as working exclusively via political patronage and allowing inflammatory sectarian rhetoric from clerics and media commentators.

If the risks of engagement are great, the folly of not engaging would be greater still. As Saudi policymakers readily admit, leaving post-2003 Iraq without strong Arab partners kept the country dependent on Iranian security assistance, energy support, trade and political funding, and made its security institutions vulnerable to Iranian penetration. Such lopsided influence helped marginalise Sunni Arabs and set the stage for ISIS’s rise.

Seeking to undo the damage, Saudi Arabia can now help strengthen the Iraqi state so that Baghdad can play the role to which many Iraqis say it aspires: a bridge between warring neighbours, rather than a battleground. The following steps could help:

  • Saudi Arabia should prioritise economic engagement with Iraq, producing immediate, tangible gains and fostering long-term projects. Efforts should focus on reconstruction, job creation and trade, with an eye toward balancing investment across the country.
  • Riyadh should consider steps toward publicly recognising Shiite religious practice as a school of Islam, including by: moving to accept the legitimacy of Shiite theology and jurisprudence, quieting anti-Shiite rhetoric from Saudi Arabia-based clerics, issuing statements and undertaking actions dignifying Shiite rituals, curbing persistent discrimination against the Shiites in the kingdom, promoting broader religious tolerance within Saudi Arabia and encouraging its Sunni clerical establishment to engage informally with Shiite clerics in Najaf.
  • The Iraqi government should prioritise reconstruction and reconciliation among Iraqi parties and communities by passing legislation and regulations that will facilitate donor and investor interest, stepping up anti-corruption efforts, ensuring equal services and aid across the country, and promoting a non-sectarian and non-ethnic ethos among its security forces.
  • Iran should encourage and support the calibrated integration of autonomous security actors into Iraq’s national security institutions. Saudi Arabia and Gulf allies should understand that this process will necessarily be arduous – and must proceed delicately if it is to succeed. Tehran should encourage Iraq’s efforts to diversify its regional alliances.
  • Riyadh and Tehran should look for common ground to gradually build a base of cooperation, or at a minimum coexistence, in Iraq. This effort could include promoting shared interests such as a stronger Iraqi economy, the country’s territorial integrity, security sector reform and mitigation of the destabilising effects of climate change in the region.

Riyadh/Baghdad/Brussels, 22 May 2018

I. Introduction

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia cut ties with Iraq in 1990 after Saddam Hussein’s regime ordered the invasion of Kuwait. While Riyadh gave tacit approval of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, it was reluctant to engage with the new political order after Saddam’s fall and as Iranian influence grew.[fn]Wealthy individuals in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states funded Sunni Arab insurgents as well. See “The Iraq Study Group Report”, U.S. Institute of Peace, 6 December 2006; Sharon Otterman, “Saudi Arabia: Withdrawal of U.S. Forces”, Council on Foreign Relations, 7 February 2005.Hide Footnote Relations deteriorated further under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (2006-2014), whom Saudi Arabia, as well as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), saw as an impossible partner inclined toward Iran.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Gulf official, February 2018; senior Iraqi security official, Baghdad, March 2018; former Iraqi diplomat, February 2018.Hide Footnote Believing that by invading Iraq the U.S. had “handed the country to Iran, as if on a golden platter”, as a senior Saudi official put it, Saudi Arabia sought to attain alternative forms of influence by funding Sunni Arab organisations and politicians.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Riyadh, January 2018. See also “Saudis’ role in Iraq frustrates U.S. officials”, The New York Times, 27 July 2007.Hide Footnote

The George W. Bush administration pushed Saudi Arabia to re-establish ties with Iraq and discouraged the kingdom from supporting non-state groups. A minor breakthrough came in 2006 when Iraq’s national security adviser and the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, opened a hotline between the two of them, but it ceased to function several years later when the responsible Iraqi personnel left office.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former Iraqi security official, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote

Saudi officials viewed Iranian policy in the region as rooted in exploiting and exacerbating instability through sectarian divisions.

Real progress came only after Islamic State (ISIS) took vast swathes of Iraqi territory in 2014 and a new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, showed firm commitment to rolling back the group. Abadi carved out an image as a nationalist and convinced Riyadh he was “not Iran’s man”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Gulf diplomat, Riyadh, January 2018; UN official, phone, February 2018.Hide Footnote In response, Saudi Arabia reopened its Baghdad embassy in December 2016. Engagement has intensified since, with visits by Abadi to Riyadh in June and October 2017 and at least three such trips by the Iraqi interior minister, Qasem al-Araji.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Iraqi official, Baghdad, March 2018. See also, “Iraqi PM arrives in Riyadh for talks on reconstruction and Iran”, The National, 21 October 2017; “Saudi crown prince, Iraqi interior minister discuss common issues, counterterrorism”, Arab News, 20 July 2017.Hide Footnote

The rationale for Riyadh’s rapprochement with Baghdad begins with a broader Saudi reassessment of foreign policy vis-à-vis its regional rival, Iran. When King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud ascended to the throne in 2015, the Arab uprisings had overturned the regional status quo and shaken Saudi leaders’ trust in the U.S., even as long-time decision-makers (including two consecutive crown princes, Sultan bin Abdulaziz and Nayef bin Abdulaziz) passed away.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Saudi diplomat, Riyadh, January 2018. See also Deborah Amos, “Arab leaders feel U.S. abandoned Egypt’s Mubarak”, National Public Radio, 9 February 2011.Hide Footnote Saudi attempts to bolster certain political and armed opposition groups in Syria largely failed, while Iran gained ground. A Saudi diplomat said:

We had a little dive into supporting groups in Syria, and [discovered] we’re just not good at it. … Iran outmanoeuvred us everywhere. When you play with someone who has no red lines, you will always lose. We’re very bad at this. [We realised we have to play] another game.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Saudi diplomat, Riyadh, January 2018. Another senior Saudi official noted that Saudi influence in Lebanon peaked in the early 2000s, when that country’s economy was thriving, partly as a result of Riyadh’s support. Crisis Group interview, Riyadh, January 2018.Hide Footnote

Tehran’s influence expanded in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain. Right under the Saudis’ eyes, the pre-2011 geopolitical status quo was gone.

King Salman and his son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), assessed that Saudi Arabia’s regional policy toward Iran was too reactive – and failing. They set about formulating a new, more assertive approach, the implementation of which appears to have accelerated since MbS was elevated to crown prince in June 2017.[fn]A Saudi academic and former official said, “MbS has decided that we will go after Iran wherever they are, even in sub-Saharan Africa. This is why you see a dramatic change in relations”. Crisis Group discussion, May 2018.Hide Footnote A senior Saudi security official said in early 2018, “[Kingdom of Saudi Arabia] is trying now to correct this position. We are on the front line today to push Iran to its borders”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Saudi official, Riyadh, January 2018.Hide Footnote

Saudi leaders undertook the strategic equivalent of triage: they decided which theatres could still be saved from Iranian domination and focused on those. A Riyadh-based diplomat said, “there is a sense that with Syria and Lebanon, it’s too late, but in Yemen, Iraq and Jordan there is scope to keep Iran out”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Western diplomat, Riyadh, January 2018; senior Saudi official, Riyadh, January 2018; Saudi diplomat, Riyadh, January 2018. Officials in the Trump administration were undertaking a similar assessment. Dexter Filkins, “A Saudi prince’s quest to remake the Middle East”, New Yorker, 9 April 2018.Hide Footnote In this context, a new U.S. administration, under President Donald Trump, again encouraged Saudi Arabia to engage with Iraq, as a counterweight to Iranian influence.[fn]Crisis Group interview, U.S. defence official, phone, April 2018.Hide Footnote

Saudi officials viewed Iranian policy in the region as rooted in exploiting and exacerbating instability through sectarian divisions. Riyadh conceptualised its engagement with Iraq as a demonstration that Saudi Arabia seeks the opposite: to strengthen the state around patriotic ideals of Iraqi-ness. In taking this approach, Riyadh sought to “expose” Iranian intentions as malicious and sectarian. A senior Saudi policymaker described it this way:

Iran’s goal is to create chaos and destabilise the country …. Saudi Arabia in response pursues a strategy of reason. We try to strengthen these states and encourage patriotism among their citizens. … We are trying to put away the sectarian conflict … to expose the Iranian intervention.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Saudi official, Riyadh, January 2018.Hide Footnote

Some Iraqis warn that this Saudi perception of Iran’s policy toward their country is simplistic or even unfair, particularly after Tehran’s investment in rolling back ISIS after 2014. Tehran has built alliances across Iraq’s sects, regions, and economic and political sectors over the last fifteen years, with an eye toward building a long-term regional ally.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior diplomat, Iraq department, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Tehran, March 2018; U.S. defence official, phone, April 2018. See also Crisis Group Middle East Report N°184, Iran’s Priorities in a Turbulent Middle East, 13 April 2018.Hide Footnote An Iraqi academic explained:

The Iranians treat [the region] as a game of chess. The Saudis are rash actors. The Iranians never [make rash decisions]. There is one Iranian vision. Iran has had the same goal since 1979: to protect themselves. They never trust the Arabs and never trust the U.S., so they are creating a buffer around themselves.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Iraqi academic close to the government, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote

II. The Saudi Vision

As it tries to regain a foothold in Iraq, Riyadh hopes to push back against Iranian influence, though policymakers say they realise it will not fully succeed in doing so. From minimal influence today, they ambitiously say, they would like to see the balance tilt to 70 per cent Saudi sway, 30 per cent Iranian.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Saudi official, Riyadh, March 2018.Hide Footnote To achieve this aim, the kingdom is pursuing four tactical avenues: outreach to mainly Shiite political elites, strengthening of economic ties, cross-confessional religious engagement and spread of social good-will.

A. Political Outreach

Saudi Arabia’s political approach capitalises on an Iraqi sense of national pride that has emerged from having first survived ISIS and then having fought to defeat it.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Iraqi academic close to Najaf’s religious leadership, February 2018.Hide Footnote Saudi policymakers decided to focus on Iraq’s Shiites first, because they dominate the government and represent the greatest area of tensions in the relationship.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Saudi official, Riyadh, January 2018.Hide Footnote Riyadh’s approach prioritises individual relationships over institutional engagement, as the initial outreach to the prime minister and interior minister illustrates.[fn]While high-level personal relationships continue to drive the direction of the budding ties, the two countries are also establishing ministerial-level engagement through the Saudi-Iraqi Coordination Council, established in October 2017.Hide Footnote

The most pivotal relationship is with Abadi. Since his election in 2014, U.S. and UN officials have sought to persuade Riyadh that Abadi was not an Iranian proxy.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, U.S. defence official, phone, April 2018; UN official, phone, February 2018.Hide Footnote Saudi Arabia was impressed with the new prime minister’s determination to fight ISIS, particularly in comparison to Maliki, whose army one Saudi official said had been “defeated by 70 [ISIS] pickup trucks”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Saudi official, Riyadh, January 2018.Hide Footnote Ultimately, it was Abadi who personally convinced the Saudi leadership that he would not bow to Iran.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior Saudi official, Riyadh, January 2018; Gulf diplomat, Riyadh, January 2018; UN official, phone, February 2018; and Gulf official, February 2018.Hide Footnote

Saudi Arabia, together with the UAE and Bahrain, believes Abadi is the best-placed candidate to lead Iraq.

Abadi has worked assiduously to prove himself independent of Tehran, including in security policy, an area the Gulf views as being wholly compromised by Iran.[fn]An instance in early 2018 demonstrates that Abadi has navigated a balance between deference to Iran’s political influence and his desire to remain untethered to any foreign power, whether Tehran or Washington, according to Iranian and Western diplomatic accounts. In January, the Iranian Qods force commander, Qasem Soleimani, helped broker an electoral coalition between the PMUs and Abadi. According to Western sources, the PMUs had expected to have equal control over political decision-making, but Abadi insisted that he should have the last word on policy. Amid mismatched expectations, the coalition split within 24 hours. Crisis Group interviews, Tehran, Baghdad and by phone, February, March and April 2018.Hide Footnote Critically for Saudi Arabia, as well as for the UAE, Bahrain and Qatar, Abadi has tried to start bringing the mostly Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Units, PMUs) under state control.[fn]Ahmed Rasheed, “Iraq’s Abadi in high-stakes plan to rein in Iranian-backed militias”, Reuters, 4 January 2018. The PMUs were established following a June 2014 fatwa from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf, urging young men of all sects to fight ISIS out of patriotic spirit. Renad Mansour and Faleh A. Jabar, “The Popular Mobilization Forces and Iraq’s future”, Carnegie Middle East Center, 28 April 2017. The Maliki government seized the opportunity to expand pre-existing Shiite militias. Some brigades are aligned with – and many were trained and equipped by – Iran; others have committed atrocities against Sunnis. See for example, “Iraq: Possible War Crimes by Shiite Militia”, Human Rights Watch, 31 January 2016.Hide Footnote Though the PMUs are a diverse force, and not all units are allied with Tehran, policymakers in each of these Gulf states have described them as an Iranian front and their entrenchment as a roadblock in the way of closer ties.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Gulf diplomat, Riyadh, January 2018; Gulf official, February 2018; Bahrain government spokesperson, March 2018.Hide Footnote Abadi has said he aims to reduce the number of PMU fighters while bringing their heavy weapons under state control.[fn]Ahmed Rasheed, “Iraq’s Abadi in high-stakes plan to rein in Iranian-backed militias”, Reuters, 4 January 2018.Hide Footnote

Saudi Arabia, together with the UAE and Bahrain, believes Abadi is the best-placed candidate to lead Iraq.[fn]The UAE remains more cautious about Abadi, considering him the “best bad option” and likely still ultimately aligned with Iran. Crisis Group interviews, Gulf officials, February and April 2018; Bahraini government spokesperson, email correspondence, March 2018; former Iraqi diplomat, phone, February 2018.Hide Footnote Several officials stressed the importance of Abadi maintaining the premiership after the 12 May elections and said their engagement was predicated on the assumption that he will.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior Saudi official, Riyadh, January 2018; Gulf diplomat, Riyadh, January and February 2018.Hide Footnote Gulf support for Abadi was evident in an Iraq reconstruction donors’ conference hosted by Kuwait in February 2018. Gulf countries solicited a banner-headline dollar figure, offering Abadi pre-election evidence that he (and perhaps only he) can unlock Gulf funding for reconstruction.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Gulf diplomat, Riyadh, January 2018.Hide Footnote

Riyadh also has built a strong working relationship with Iraq’s interior minister, Qasem al-Araji, an ambitious politician who is closer than Abadi to Tehran. Araji is a member of the Badr Organisation, one of the primary vehicles for Iranian influence in the security sector.[fn]See for example, Guido Steinberg, “The Badr Organization: Iran’s Most Important Instrument in Iraq”, German Institute for International and Security Affairs, 26 July 2017.Hide Footnote Iraqi officials and diplomats have varying views of why Saudi Arabia has prioritised ties with Araji. Some believe it is expediency. As a senior Iraqi security official said, a good relationship with the minister “will make most things move easily” for Riyadh.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Iraqi security official, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote The Interior Ministry would also be in a unique position to offer Saudi Arabia reassurances that its interests and investments will not be targeted by Iranian-allied PMUs.[fn]Since taking office, Araji has surprised some observers with his willingness to work with Abadi to move the PMUs under state control. A U.S. defence official said, “he has been trying to support Abadi’s approach to bring the PMUs under [the prime minister’s authority]. A lot of that is because Araji, when he became integrated into the official government process, saw that a group was operating outside his purview”. Crisis Group interview, phone, April 2018.Hide Footnote Others see an attempt to “flip” Araji – a man known to have aspirations to the premiership – away from his erstwhile patrons in Tehran.[fn]The logic of this argument is as follows: within his own party, Araji would have powerful competition for a run at the premiership; he would be outranked by Badr Organisation chief Hadi al-Ameri. By switching to Saudi patronage, he might be able to subvert this hierarchy and improve his chances at moving up politically. Crisis Group interviews, Iraqi official, Baghdad, March 2018; Western diplomat, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote Regardless of the calculations, the relationship appears mutually coveted.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Iraqi official, Baghdad, March 2018. Araji visited Saudi Arabia at least three times in the second half of 2017 and met MbS on at least one occasion. “Iraq’s interior minister meets with Saudi crown prince”, The National, 19 July 2017.Hide Footnote Araji, for example, has sought to add nuance to Riyadh’s understanding of the PMUs.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Iraqi official, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote

Beyond outreach to Iraqi Shiite government officials, Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf states, as well as Turkey, have extended support to individual politicians and parties, including some of the top vote-winning coalitions among non-Shiite-led blocs in the May 2018 elections.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior Iraqi security official, Baghdad, March 2018; former Iraqi security official, Baghdad, March 2018; UN official, phone, February 2018; Western diplomat, Baghdad, March 2018. Turkey is one of Iraq’s largest economic partners and has also maintained close relationships with and support for some Sunni Arab politicians. Qatar supports some Iraqi political figures, including by hosting exiles and providing coverage in Qatari-owned and aligned media outlets. The political rift between Qatar and Turkey, on one side, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE, on the other, is reflected in their patronage distribution in Iraq: Qatar and Turkey support Sunnis inclined toward Islamism, while Saudi Arabia and the UAE generally reach out to secular-leaning nationalists. These actions contribute to the splintering of Sunni Arab political alliances.Hide Footnote These overtures have included direct patronage, favourable media coverage and diplomatic visibility.[fn]Electoral coalitions whose members have reportedly received support from Gulf states and/or Turkey include Iraq’s Decision and Wataniya. Crisis Group interviews, Gulf official, April 2018; UN official, phone, February 2018; Western official, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote

B. Confessional Engagement

As part of its re-evaluation of Iraq, Riyadh is betting on the idea that the vast majority of Iraqi Shiites place their ethnic identity above their confessional one.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Iraqi MP, Baghdad, March 2018; adviser to the National Wisdom Movement of Ammar al-Hakim, Baghdad, March 2018; Saudi diplomat, Riyadh, February 2018; Saudi academic close to government, Riyadh, February 2018.Hide Footnote Most follow the quietist religious school prevalent in Najaf, rather than the Iranian regime’s velayat-e faqih doctrine, which Saudi leaders view as deeply threatening.[fn]Practitioners of Shiism claim allegiance to a “religious reference” or marja – a grand ayatollah, whose rulings on Islamic law and practice they seek to follow in their lives. Najaf’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is the most widely revered marja among Arab Shiites. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, is an adherent of the velayat-e faqih doctrine formulated by Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and incorporated into Iran’s 1979 constitution. Velayat-e faqih imagines a theocratic Islamic republic ultimately governed by the marja in accordance with Islamic law. The clerics’ direct role in politics in Iran since 1979 starkly contrasts with Najaf’s quietist approach of keeping religion out of politics. Khamenei has strongly promoted Qom (rather than Najaf) as the pre-eminent place of Shiite religious learning. The institution on which the marja’s authority rests is called the marjaiya; the cluster of Shiite seminaries that provide the theological and juridical underpinnings for the marjaiya is called the hawza.Hide Footnote Riyadh’s engagement seeks to emphasise the Arab/Iraqi component of Shiite identity and to elevate the religious importance of Najaf vis-à-vis the Iranian city of Qom.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Saudi diplomat, Riyadh, February 2018; Iraqi MP, Baghdad, March 2018; Saudi academic close to the government, Riyadh, February 2018. See also Erika Solomon, “Sunni Saudi Arabia courts an ally in Iraq’s Shia”, Financial Times, 2 April 2018. A former Saudi official said, “we would prefer an Arab base for the marjaiya, rather than Iran”. Crisis Group interview, May 2018.Hide Footnote

Riyadh is likely to welcome [Moqtada al-Sadr's] electoral success as a sign that Iraqis find appeal and salience in his non-sectarian rallying call.

Saudi engagement with Iraq accelerated after a July 2017 visit to the kingdom, and subsequently to Abu Dhabi, by Shiite cleric and politician Moqtada al-Sadr, whose coalition won a plurality of parliamentary seats in the May 2018 elections.[fn]Fanar Haddad, “Why a controversial Iraqi Shiite cleric visited Saudi Arabia”, Washington Post, 10 August 2017.Hide Footnote Both a religious figure and a political activist who has pushed his non-sectarian credentials, Sadr crystallised Riyadh’s strategy of promoting Arab identity as a unifying tool.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Gulf official, February 2018.Hide Footnote He told Saudi leaders he wanted Iraq to have more balanced regional relationships, including with the Gulf states, as well as with Turkey and Iran. Sadr offered the Saudis a set of concrete policy options, reportedly including: making sizeable economic investments, “showing up” at Baghdad events, engaging Iraqi tribal leaders and acknowledging Shiism as a valid doctrine among other schools of Islam. Sadr also asked Riyadh to open a consulate in Najaf to facilitate both pilgrimage to Najaf by Shiites from Saudi Arabia and travel to Mecca and Medina for the hajj and umra by Iraqi Shiites.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Sadrist MP, Baghdad, March and April 2018.Hide Footnote The kingdom sent Iraq’s Foreign Affairs Ministry a formal request to open a consulate just days after the visit.[fn]“Saudi Arabia to open consulate in Najaf”, Baghdad Post, 14 August 2017.Hide Footnote Riyadh is likely to welcome the cleric’s electoral success as a sign that Iraqis find appeal and salience in his non-sectarian rallying call.

If Sadr is at the centre of Saudi religious engagement, other prominent religious families also are in Riyadh’s sights. Saudi Arabia has invited Ammar al-Hakim, leader of the National Wisdom Movement, to visit.[fn]Crisis Group interview, adviser to the National Wisdom Movement, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote Hakim, an Arab nationalist, a former leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (from which he split) and a loose political ally of Abadi and Sadr, hails (like Sadr) from a prominent clerical family in Najaf.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Report N°70, snShiite Politics in Iraq: The Role of the Supreme Council, 15 November 2007.Hide Footnote His second cousin, Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Saeed al-Hakim, is the second most senior cleric in Najaf after Sistani. Like the Sadrists, the National Wisdom Movement sees Saudi engagement as a way to rebalance Iraq’s regional relationships.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, adviser to the National Wisdom Movement, Baghdad, March and April 2018.Hide Footnote Saudi Arabia also appears to be experimenting with allowing some of its Sunni clerical establishment to speak informally with Shiite scholars in Najaf.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Shiite cleric, Najaf, March 2018.Hide Footnote

Outreach to Najaf aligns with a Saudi domestic priority to rein in the more intolerant – and overtly sectarian – elements within the kingdom’s own Sunni clergy. As it embarks on a massive economic and social reform initiative, the leadership in Riyadh has publicly described the most austere reading of Islam among those clergy as an obstacle to its ability to govern a modern state.[fn]MbS said: “I believe in the last three years, Saudi Arabia did more than in the last 30 years. And that’s because it’s aligned with our interest as Saudis to be competitive in livability and cultural and social [stet]. And Islam it’s open. It’s not like what the extremists are trying to represent Islam after ’79”. Interviewed in Time, 5 April 2018. See also Margherita Stancati, “Mohammed bin Salman’s next Saudi challenge: Curtailing ultraconservative Islam”, Wall Street Journal, 10 January 2018.Hide Footnote To that end, King Salman and MbS have made several symbolic gestures of greater tolerance for religious diversity, including meetings with Egypt’s Coptic pope, top Vatican officials, Jewish rabbis in New York and Saudi Arabia’s Shiite cleric Hassan al-Saffar.[fn]“Why the Saudi crown prince’s first official meeting with Jewish leaders is such a big deal”, Haaretz, 29 March 2018; “Saudi king meets with top Vatican cardinal for inter-religious dialogue”, Al-Arabiya, 18 April 2018; Saudi journalist Ahmed al-Omran on Twitter, 14 April 2018, https://bit.ly/2rT1QXw. Also notable were visits by Muslim World League Secretary General Mohammed al-Issa to the Vatican and synagogues in Europe in 2017. While the kingdom has engaged in inter-religious dialogue before, including through the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue, past Saudi leaders have largely avoided participating directly, leaving that task to the clerics.Hide Footnote This outreach, while suggestive of greater openness, is so far superficial and will need to extend into policy if it is to end or lessen discrimination against Saudi Arabia’s own Shiite population.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain also have a security interest in a moderate Najaf, which most Shiites in the Gulf look to as a reference point. Sistani has on multiple occasions decried the treatment of Shiite populations in the Gulf, particularly in Bahrain, which expelled the cleric’s envoy in 2014.[fn]“UN rights monitor criticises Bahrain over Shiite expulsion”, Agence France Presse, 24 April 2014.Hide Footnote But in contrast to some Tehran-allied Shiite clerics, Sistani has insisted on non-violence, even amid the 2011 Arab uprisings. For this reason, the Bahraini leadership, which violently quashed its 2011 protests with Saudi support, views Sistani as a critical counterweight to Iran, which cheered on the demonstrations.[fn]Crisis Group email correspondence, Bahraini government spokesperson, March 2018.Hide Footnote

The Wadi-us-Salaam cemetery sits just meters from Najaf's shrines. Recently, the burial ground has received casualties from the anti-ISIS campaign. CRISISGROUP/Elizabeth Dickinson

C. The Economics of Change

Saudi Arabia is finally playing things the right way. They realised that the way to tackle Iran’s influence is through trade.

Saudi Arabia’s most powerful tool for re-engagement with Iraq is its ability to deploy funds, companies and resources. How it uses this tool could make or break the relationship. An Iraqi investor said, “Saudi Arabia is finally playing things the right way. They realised that the way to tackle Iran’s influence is through trade”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Iraqi investor, phone, February 2018. Many critics of Saudi Arabia in Iraq still encourage Saudi economic investment, according to a former security official: “If their outreach is economic, we welcome it – as long as they don’t politicise it”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote

Economic engagement is the one area where Saudi Arabia believes it could have an advantage over Iran. Its consumer products are of higher quality, its firms have stronger infrastructure and investment expertise, and its wallet is thicker. Saudi Arabia’s economic approach to Iraq thus far leverages those strengths.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior Saudi official, Riyadh, March 2018; Iraqi investor, phone, February 2018. In October 2017, following Abadi’s visit to Riyadh, the two countries launched a joint coordinating committee to facilitate negotiations on economic, political and other issues.Hide Footnote

Consumer goods are a particular preoccupation for Riyadh. The vast majority of agricultural and other staples in Iraq come from Turkey and Iran, providing both countries with quotidian visibility as well as foreign revenue.[fn]Data on Iraq’s trade partners is inconsistent across sources. Turkey is Iraq’s largest source of imports, with $11.9 billion in goods entering the country in 2014, according to the 2016 yearbook of the International Monetary Fund’s Direction of Trade Statistics (online). Saudi Arabia’s imports are absent from this data, but UN and other trade registers track imports in 2014 and 2015 at below $0.5 billion; the World Bank, World Integrated Trade Solutions database (online), and UN Statistical Division, Commodity Trade database (online). Iranian imports into Iraq are largely missing from international trade databases, but the Tehran Chamber of Commerce reports exports of $6.42 billion between March 2017 and March 2018. See https://bit.ly/2KAJked.Hide Footnote Saudi Arabia would like to replace these products with its own; in August 2017, it opened its Arar border crossing with Iraq to facilitate trade, and it is reportedly considering opening another transit point.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior Saudi official, Riyadh, March 2018; Iraqi investor, phone, February 2018. Saudi Arabian businesses were encouraged by their reception at the October 2017 Baghdad International Fair that they would be able to reach Iraqi consumers. By both Saudi and Iraqi accounts, the Saudi booth saw significantly more visitors than the Iranian display. Crisis Group interviews, Saudi academic close to government, Riyadh, February 2018; officials at al-Nahrain Center for Strategic Studies, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote Riyadh is also seeking lower Iraqi tariffs for Saudi Arabian goods.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Western diplomat, Baghdad, March 2018. See also “Iraq and Saudi Arabia discuss ways to develop economic and trade relations between the two countries”, Iraq’s Economic Center, 11 February 2018. Hide Footnote

The kingdom additionally appears interested in cross-border road development, petrochemicals, agriculture and infrastructure.[fn]The Saudi Basic Industries Corporation, SABIC, announced in December 2017 that it will reopen its Iraq office in order to facilitate investment in the petrochemicals sector. See “Saudi’s SABIC to open office in Iraq as relations improve”, Reuters, 5 December 2017.Hide Footnote For now, however, few concrete projects or investment details have emerged.[fn]Iraq and Saudi Arabia have signed at least eighteen energy-related memoranda of understanding, but the details have not been disclosed. “Saudi energy minister witnesses signing 18 MoUs in Iraq”, Saudi Press Agency, 5 December 2017.Hide Footnote Both public and private investors are leery of Iraq’s prevalent corruption and red tape. Private companies are concerned that they will not be paid on time, their assets may be seized or reallocated at politicians’ whims, and their operations may suffer from enduring insecurity.[fn]Dubai-based property developer Emaar has expressed interest in a $10 billion real estate development project in Baghdad known as al-Rashid City, but the deal is on hold amid security concerns. Crisis Group interviews, Gulf official, April 2018; Western oil sector consultant, phone, February 2018. See also “Iraq set to sign deal with Emaar, Eagle Hills for huge Baghdad scheme”, Zawya, 7 March 2018.Hide Footnote In addition to these concerns, a lack of skilled labour and a lengthy contract review process are deterring investors in the oil sector.[fn]A Western oil sector official said, “Iraq’s pitch to the oil sector is, ‘high risk, high reward’. But for us, it’s been high risk and marginal reward. Around the world, Iraqi oil terms are in the bottom quartile of all contracts”. Crisis Group interview, phone, February 2018. See also Robin Mills and Mohammed Walji, “Muddy Waters: Iraq’s Water Injection Needs”, Iraq Energy Institute, 19 January 2018.Hide Footnote

Strategies to mitigate these concerns include negotiating with the prime minister’s office directly rather than seeking approvals via the ministries, with their lengthy and opaque bureaucratic procedures.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Iraqi academic close to government, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote Riyadh has a preference for personal over institutional relationships, but to bypass the ministries would run the risk of exacerbating and even instigating corruption among office holders. Pledges at the Kuwait conference offered another route: credit and export guarantees meant to provide the Gulf private sector with insurance for riskier investments. Another model relies on Gulf countries’ sovereign development funds and charities to allocate funding to projects, paying contractors or even carrying out projects directly. An Emirati official explained:

I see this as a new approach to foreign aid, to link it to institutions such as the Abu Dhabi Fund that have their very specific criteria. What it does is to fix the cash problem of corruption. With the Abu Dhabi Fund, the [Iraqi] government provides us with projects, [the Fund] does a technical assessment, and instead of just giving cash, which could disappear, we build relationships with local institutions.[fn]Crisis Group interview, UAE official, Abu Dhabi, March 2018.Hide Footnote

No matter their risk-hedging mechanisms, Saudi Arabia and Gulf allies may still struggle to compete with Iran’s economic heft in Iraq, because of Tehran’s head start since 2003 and its willingness to deploy resources swiftly and ask questions later. The electricity sector is an example. Emirati and Saudi companies have both expressed interest in working to improve Iraq’s power systems, and Kuwait is set to start exporting power to Iraq.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior UAE official, Abu Dhabi, March 2018.Hide Footnote But today, when the grid in southern Iraq reaches capacity, Iran has readily filled the gap to meet demand.[fn]“Iraq to start electricity imports from Kuwait: Ministry”, Iraqi News, 21 February 2018.Hide Footnote An Iraqi academic explained the Iranian mentality: “They say: ‘whatever you need, we will give you. We won’t ask a penny. But eventually we will get the money back from you’. They believe Iraq can pay for itself, and that Iran can have the best influence by being the first in the door”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Iraqi academic close to government, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote

While the Gulf states may be able to disburse funds as fast, their success in displacing Iranian products may well depend on what financial terms they set in comparison. If Saudi Arabia is intent on entering the Iraqi market quickly, it will almost certainly fuel corruption. But if Riyadh is indeed concerned about graft, it may be unable to compete for contracts and bids when other parties offer kickbacks to Iraqi partners. Without clear terms, Saudi Arabia risks contributing to a cycle of economic predation that has weakened Iraq’s political system.

If Saudi Arabia is intent on entering the Iraqi market quickly, it will almost certainly fuel corruption.

D. Social Outreach

Saudi Arabia faces a complex challenge to rewrite the narrative of its past engagement with Iraq. The kingdom’s history of promoting a particularly arid and intolerant form of Salafi Islam, whose proponents at times cast Shiites as non-Muslims, has planted it firmly in the minds of many Iraqis as synonymous with ISIS.[fn]Crisis Group discussion, al-Nahrain Center for Strategic Studies, Baghdad, March 2018. See also, “How Muslim sectarianism affects politics and vice-versa”, The Economist, 11 September 2016.Hide Footnote Even if the state does not endorse radical clerics or the expression of their ideas, the longstanding refusal by the kingdom’s clerical establishment to acknowledge Shiite religious practice blurs the distinction for many Iraqis and creates a receptive ideological environment in which extremists can operate. Saudi Arabia’s reticence about supporting the post-Saddam order in Iraq, its discriminatory treatment of its own Shiite population and, indirectly, Bahrain’s, and the ongoing war in Yemen against the Huthi movement, which subscribes to an offshoot of Shiism, have all left deep wounds.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, officials at al-Nahrain Center for Strategic Studies, Baghdad, March 2018; senior Shiite cleric, Najaf, March 2018; former Iraqi diplomat, phone, February 2018. In early 2018, a number of buses in Baghdad carried posters criticising MbS for having inflicted civilian casualties in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen. One poster called him a “criminal” (mujrim).Hide Footnote

The kingdom is attempting to repair its image through media engagement, tribal and personal outreach, and direct patronage of Iraqi tribes, communities and individuals.[fn]In February 2018, the first Saudi media delegation to visit Iraq in 28 years met senior officials, including Abadi, Araji and parliamentary speaker, Salim Jabouri. “Media Saudi editors pay landmark visit to Baghdad”, Kuwait News Agency, 23 February 2018. A senior Saudi official relayed the following anecdote: during a recent visit to Shiite tribesmen, he discovered that an Iraqi MP had a medical condition that needed treatment, at a cost of $25,000. The official asked and secured the crown prince’s permission to pay for the MP’s care in India. Crisis Group interview, Riyadh, January 2018.Hide Footnote Semi-governmental organisations in Saudi Arabia and Iraq are also exploring joint cultural festivals, parliamentary exchanges and educational links.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Saudi academic close to government, Riyadh, February 2018. See also “Saudi Arabia’s use of soft power in Iraq is making Iran nervous”, The Economist, 8 March 2018.Hide Footnote All of these moves could help dull sceptics’ anger, but they will ultimately do little unless Riyadh fundamentally changes its relationship with Shiite communities across the region, beginning at home.[fn]A former Iraqi diplomat said, “Iraqi Shiites are worried about fellow Shiites in Bahrain, and they view this as clear Saudi domination. Saudi Arabia’s conduct in Yemen will be a persistent concern for us from a humanitarian perspective and also a sign to us that there is not enough maturity in Saudi Arabia to understand that [their approach] is futile and counterproductive”. Crisis Group interview, phone, February 2018.Hide Footnote

So far, Saudi Arabia’s greatest success in improving its social standing in Iraq has come through football. In March 2018, the Saudi Arabian national team travelled to Basra for a friendly game with an Iraqi team, the Lions of Mesopotamia. Thousands of spectators waved both countries’ flags in a euphoric atmosphere further amplified on social media.[fn]See, for example, the tweet by “Soccer Iraq”, 2 March 2018, https://bit.ly/2LbiM4n.Hide Footnote Days later, King Salman called Abadi and promised to build a new soccer stadium in a yet-to-be-determined location in Iraq. By late March, the Saudi sports minister had helped convince the Fédération internationale de football association (FIFA) to lift its ban on Iraq hosting international matches.[fn]“FIFA lifts three-decade ban on Iraq hosting international games”, The National, 18 March 2018; and “President of Iraq football association thanks Turki al-Sheikh for his efforts in lifting ban on Iraqi stadiums”, Saudi Press Agency, 17 March 2018.Hide Footnote

The UAE, similarly, announced in April that it would fund the $50.4 million reconstruction of Mosul’s Grand al-Nouri mosque.[fn]Dubai Media Office, Twitter, 24 April 2018, https://bit.ly/2IR6Ru5.Hide Footnote More than 800 years old, this place of worship was a defining landmark before ISIS blew up its minaret during its rule. Such gestures could help soften Iraqi antipathy for the kingdom and its Gulf allies, though their impact will depend on timely follow-through, and more importantly on the broader political and economic context in which they take place.

III. The View from Baghdad

Saudi Arabia’s nearly universal welcome in Baghdad comes with a widely shared caveat: do not engage with Iraq in order to counter Iran.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, officials at al-Nahrain Center for Strategic Studies, Baghdad, March 2018; senior Iraqi security official, Baghdad, March 2018; Iraqi foreign ministry official, Baghdad, March 2018; former Iraqi security official, Baghdad, March 2018; adviser to National Wisdom Movement, Baghdad, March 2018; Iraqi Sunni MP, Baghdad, March 2018; senior Shiite cleric, Najaf, March 2018; European Union official, Brussels, March 2018.Hide Footnote This reservation illuminates a fundamental mismatch between Iraqi and Saudi motivations for reopening relations. Many Saudis are happy to rebuild ties with Arab cousins – sometimes literally cousins – in Iraq.[fn]The Shammar are the largest tribe with ties to both Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Members live on both sides of the border between the two countries, as well as in Syria and Jordan; they comprise both Shiite and Sunni Muslims. Saudi Arabia’s first two ambassadors to Iraq after 2016 have been members of the Shammar tribe, and both have engaged heavily with Iraq’s Shammar community.Hide Footnote But as a Gulf official put it, “Saudi Arabia today views Iraq as a zero-sum game. They believe Iran is winning”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, April 2018. A former Iraqi security official shared this anecdote to illustrate what he saw as Riyadh’s zero-sum mentality: after the 2003 invasion, then Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz asked him: “We want to know: who is the winner in Iraq?” Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote

Few in Iraq want to see their country devolve into another Saudi-Iranian battleground. Instead, policymakers now speak of an alternative, if highly aspirational, paradigm. Rather than a flashpoint for conflict, Baghdad could provide a theatre for de-escalation, “to pacify tensions [between] the Saudis and Iran that are putting fire to the region”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior Iraqi security official, Baghdad, March 2018; Iraqi academic close to government, Baghdad, March 2018. Proponents of this approach cite the example of Iranian and U.S. coexistence in Iraq, which developed after those two countries had battled for years.Hide Footnote In principle, Saudi Arabia and Iran could build on shared interests, such as Iraq’s economic recovery, elimination of ISIS, the country’s territorial integrity and even combatting drug smuggling.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Iraqi security official, Baghdad, March 2018. Some in Iran also believe that “Iraq can be a place to de-escalate tensions in the framework of Iranian-Saudi cooperation on reconstruction of Iraq in the post-ISIS era”. Crisis Group interview, senior official at government-backed, non-profit Iraq reconstruction organisation, Tehran, March 2018.Hide Footnote

Saudi Arabia will have to be cognisant of divergent Iraqi interest groups, as well as Iran’s priorities and red lines.

Such a scenario would require at a minimum a stronger Iraqi state, able to resist regional attempts to use the country’s soil to settle geopolitical scores.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, former Iraqi security official, Baghdad, March 2018; Iraqi foreign ministry official, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote For now, Iraqi policymakers are prioritising Saudi Arabia’s economic engagement as the least provocative way to reopen ties. Through public and private investment, they say, Saudi Arabia could develop infrastructure, revitalise the housing sector, inject new capital into the oil industry and, ultimately, create jobs. A Sunni parliamentarian put it this way: “Wherever they go, they will find things to do”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Sunni MP, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote

While many priorities are shared across constituencies, Saudi Arabia will have to be cognisant of divergent Iraqi interest groups, as well as Iran’s priorities and red lines. The various perspectives can be roughly divided into five: the federal government, Shiite Iraqi nationalists, the Najaf religious establishment, the Sunni political class and Iran.

A. The Government

Iraqi institutions have oscillated between ambition and pragmatism in their engagement with Saudi Arabia since late 2016. The new bilateral ties have been applauded amid triumphant optics: promises of reconstruction aid and cultural good-will. The Iraqi government needs Riyadh to deliver quick economic benefits to justify reopening ties and to acquire breathing room for dealing with thornier issues. Specifically, if ties are to last, current and former Iraqi officials say they need to be institutionalised rather than depend entirely on high-level personal contacts.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, former Iraqi diplomat, February 2018; senior Iraqi security official, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote This process will be time-consuming and likely fraught with disagreement. “We can’t agree to have big goals” for the relationship initially, said a senior Iraqi official.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Iraqi security official, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote

In the short to medium term, Iraq’s government needs Gulf states to help finance reconstruction. The U.S., UK and European Union (EU) are unlikely to contribute sufficiently to rebuild destroyed cities, focusing instead on humanitarian priorities.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, EU humanitarian official, February 2018; Western diplomat, Baghdad, March 2018. See also Susannah George and Lori Hinnant, “Few ready to pay to rebuild Iraq after Islamic State group defeat”, Associated Press, 28 December 2017.Hide Footnote Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait City and Doha are among the only bilateral donors that can credibly provide the resources needed to resuscitate former ISIS areas. Failing to do so risks undermining Abadi and his allies, who have bet their political reputations on delivering reconstruction – or worse, seeing a return of the social and political resentment that facilitated ISIS’s rise in these areas.

Inevitably, Saudi Arabia and Iraq will disagree on major technical issues concerning reconstruction and on broader aspects of their relationship. Immediately after the Kuwait conference, Gulf officials described a host of obstacles to seeing their pledges materialise.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Gulf diplomat, Riyadh, February 2018.Hide Footnote They would like to see stronger guarantees, for example to ensure repayment in case investments default, as well as visible attempts to curb corruption.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior UAE official, Abu Dhabi, March 2018. For more on anti-corruption challenges, see Douglas Ollivant, “The other battle in Iraq”, Lawfare, 11 February 2018.Hide Footnote A Gulf diplomat said, “the Iraqis have unrealistic expectations; these [pledges] are gestures, not commitments. They don’t seem to understand this; they thought checks would be arriving in the mail”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Gulf diplomat, Riyadh, February 2018. Another example of technocratic debate comes from a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) proposal for a “plan of action” on cooperation with Iraq. Proposed in late 2017, the plan was still under consideration in Baghdad as of April 2018. The plan would include mechanisms to convene ministerial-level Iraq-GCC meetings to address disagreements before they escalate or erupt in the media.Hide Footnote

To succeed, the bilateral ties will need to both move big and visibly on the economy while working small and tediously day-to-day.

The May 2018 election results may encourage Gulf investors, however. Sadr’s On the Move electoral bloc, which included the Communists, was the most persistent critic of government corruption in the lead-up to the vote; its victory is telling of the frustration many Iraqis feel with state decay. Prior to the election, Sadrists said their aim was to build an anti-corruption majority bloc in parliament to begin pushing through structural change.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Sadrist MP, Baghdad, March 2018. Ahead of the May elections, Sadr wrote: “Your Iraq remains a prisoner of corruption after it has been liberated from occupation and terrorism. So free it by your votes”. Muqtada Sadr’s Twitter account, 9 May 2018, https://bit.ly/2rT56SK.Hide Footnote

Still, Iraqi officials urge an adjustment of investors’ expectations. Iraq cannot wait to rebuild until it has eradicated graft from its contracting system. In order to get projects off the ground, Baghdad will need creative solutions of the sort Riyadh and its allies are already considering.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Iraqi official, Baghdad, March 2018; Iraqi academic close to the government, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote Put simply, to succeed, the bilateral ties will need to both move big and visibly on the economy while working small and tediously day-to-day.

The federal government’s priorities are unlikely to change significantly under the next prime minister, particularly if the successful coalition excludes Maliki’s State of Law and the PMUs’ Fatah list.[fn]In an initial statement on Twitter after the election results, Sadr expressed interest in working with electoral blocs, including Hakim’s Wisdom Movement and Iyad Allawi’s Wataniya, though not the State of Law or Fatah lists. Muqtada Sadr’s Twitter account, 14 May 2018, https://bit.ly/2Iwv6dI.Hide Footnote But with either or both of those blocs in opposition, the Saudi-Iraqi relationship could become a bargaining chip in parliamentary politics. Members of Fatah and State of Law are politically close to Tehran, and while still nominally supportive of Saudi investment, their members have been significantly cooler to the prospect of closer ties with Riyadh.[fn]Crisis Group interview, parliamentary candidate on Maliki’s list, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote Analysts close to Maliki expect that his list can resist Saudi engagement in alliance with Fatah.[fn]The means of resistance could include the PMUs holding a tighter grip on Sunni Arab areas in which they are deployed or singling out Shiite politicians who have engaged with Saudi Arabia, either in the media or with personal security threats. Crisis Group interview, Iraqi journalist close to Maliki, phone and email correspondence, March 2018.Hide Footnote

B. Shiite Politicians Seeking Regional Balance

Shiite leaders who favour re-engagement and call themselves nationalists view part of their role as demonstrating to Riyadh that their constituents favour their Arab, national and even tribal identities over their sectarian affiliation. A Sadrist MP said: “To their amazement, the [Saudis] found that Iraqi Shiites are Arabs, that they do not follow velayat-e faqih and that they want to build a modern civic state”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Sadrist MP, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote With this understanding, some urge Saudi Arabia to embrace not only Iraqi Shiites but also Shiism generally as a legitimate school of Islam.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Sadrist MP, Baghdad, March 2018; Iraqi academic close to the government, Baghdad, March 2018; adviser to the National Wisdom Movement, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote Even the most elementary steps toward recognition could improve Saudi Arabia’s relations with Shiites across Iraq and the region.

Pro-engagement Shiite politicians would also like to see a more nuanced policy toward the PMUs, which Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain see as an Iranian front and a threat to their own security.[fn]PMUs have reportedly been active near the border crossing at Arar, which may be an attempt to levy fees on increased economic activity. For example, these groups have facilitated pilgrims’ movement through Arar for the hajj. See “العطية: الحشد اسند القوات الأمنية في تأمين عرعر ويؤكد خفض الأسعار امام الحجاج, Alghad Press, 11 August 2017. Bahrain also has domestic concerns. A Bahraini government spokesperson wrote: “Numerous suspects received training in Iraq from terrorist organisations in an aim to commit terrorist acts in Bahrain. Many of them are still in Iraq. We are in constant contact with the Iraqi government, and we have found them to be very supportive and understanding of our concerns in this regard”. Crisis Group correspondence, March 2018. Conflict Armament Research reported in March 2018 that it had found forensic links between Iranian components of explosively formed projectiles and improvised explosive devices used in Yemen, Bahrain and Iraq. “Radio-controlled, passive infrared-initiated IEDs: Iran’s latest technological contributions to the war in Yemen”, Conflict Armament Research, 26 March 2018.Hide Footnote A UAE official said: “As of now, the whole Hashd al-Shaabi is a red line for us. … They are one group”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, UAE official, Abu Dhabi, March 2018.Hide Footnote Many Iraqis are offended by criticism of these forces, which took some of the heaviest casualties fighting ISIS and not all of which are close to Iran. An Iraqi security analyst said: “When the Hashd started facing ISIS in battle, the Saudi media started name-calling against them. But the Hashd were our last resort. We would consider any entity that talks about them negatively an enemy. The Saudis need to understand this”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote Although the PMUs have been linked to abuses and other misconduct, including sectarian discrimination, they were also invaluable in defeating ISIS and holding territory ever since. Shiite communities have suffered thousands of losses, such that nearly every street corner of Najaf features photos of neighbourhood martyrs. A senior Shiite cleric described the situation this way:

Without the Hashd, ISIS would have invaded [all of Iraq]. I would encourage the Saudi government to hold a ceremony for the Iraqi people – Kurds, Sunnis, Shiites, all – because they defeated ISIS on behalf of the whole world. I am not saying all the Hashd are good. There are more than 150,000 of them. Some we cannot control; some have made bad mistakes. Is it fair to look at just the 5 per cent who did bad things rather than the 95 per cent who did good?[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Shiite cleric, Najaf, March 2018.Hide Footnote

Shiite nationalists urge Riyadh and its Gulf allies to show patience in their wish to see these groups demobilised. Iraq’s next government may assume the difficult task of integrating the PMUs into formal security institutions while managing the risks and autonomy that pro-Iran brigades wield on the ground.[fn]A prime ministerial decree issued 8 March 2018 granted PMU fighters pay and benefits from the defence ministry. “رئيس مجلس الوزراء القائد العام للقوات المسلحة الدكتور حيدر العبادي يصدر ضوابط تكييف اوضاع مقاتلي الحشد الشعبي”, Iraqi prime minister’s office, 8 March 2018.Hide Footnote Some warn that certain unwelcome practical concessions may be inevitable, for example offering service or security contracts to the PMUs as part of large infrastructure development projects to both create jobs for fighters and prevent them from targeting these very endeavours.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Iraqi official, Baghdad, March 2018; oil industry analyst, phone, February 2018.Hide Footnote

The Iraqi government will almost certainly have to devote a larger portion of its budget to paying PMUs and former PMU fighters’ salaries than it would like. But releasing trained, armed men into civilian life without an economic outlet has failed more than once before in Iraq.[fn]Crisis Group interview, UAE official, Abu Dhabi, March 2018. Previously, disbanded armed groups have contributed to a cycle of resentment and instability. The list includes the entire Iraqi army, which the U.S. dismantled in 2003 without extending pension benefits; and the tribal Awakening Councils (or Sons of Iraq) established to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2007-2008, which the U.S. had promised salaries, which the Maliki government then mostly failed to pay.Hide Footnote As unsavoury as these options appear in Gulf capitals, policymakers there should resist the urge to make maximalist demands or give up on Iraq altogether.

C. Najaf

Najaf has a particularly delicate role in the Saudi-Iraqi relationship. Riyadh sees the Shiite clerical leadership (marjaiya) there as a counterweight to Iranian influence. As a religious leader, Sistani has been a critic of velayat-e faqih. He also has favoured an independent Iraq that can stand on its own, unbound by Iranian or other foreign power.

Many members of the Najaf religious establishment would embrace renewed ties with Saudi Arabia, including as a way to de-escalate regional sectarian tensions.[fn]A senior official at the Iraq reconstruction organisation in Tehran said, “some Shiite leaders like Ayatollah Sistani welcome de-escalating measures, as they believe this would be beneficial for decreasing sectarianism and the Shiite-Sunni dispute”. Crisis Group interview, Tehran, March 2018.Hide Footnote Ayatollah Sistani himself reportedly maintains a back channel for communication with Riyadh.[fn]Erika Solomon, “Sunni Saudi Arabia courts an ally in Iraq’s Shia”, Financial Times, 2 April 2018.Hide Footnote But the marjaiya would equally resist any Saudi attempt to politicise Najaf or place it in competition with Iran. A senior cleric said: “Our message to Saudi Arabia is: ‘We won’t be wooed into this fight …. We say the same thing to Iran’”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Shiite cleric, Najaf, March 2018.Hide Footnote Positive responses by Shiite clerics to a proposed Saudi consulate in Najaf are telling of the religious leadership’s insistence on remaining above politics and geopolitical feuds. The planned consulate would primarily serve Shiites, and it has been welcomed by many in Najaf. According to a source close to the clerical elite, “after [Saudi Arabia] indicated they wanted to open a consulate, the Iranian ambassador sent word to one of the grand ayatollahs that this is unacceptable. The cleric turned around and said, ‘Isn’t there a Saudi consulate in Mashhad [Iran]?’”[fn]Crisis Group interview, Iraqi academic close to Najaf, February 2018.Hide Footnote

It may be difficult for Riyadh to properly calibrate its engagement with Najaf – to walk the line between appropriate indications of support and excessive politicisation.

Shiite leaders close to the marja (religious reference) share their political colleagues’ support for Saudi steps toward acknowledging and better understanding Shiite religious practice. One cleric suggested that Saudi Arabia’s Sunni clergy expand its written scholarship on Shiite jurisprudence.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Shiite cleric, Najaf, March 2018. A senior cleric said, “we agree to building a good relationship slowly, step by step. We have a long bad history, so we need to move slowly”. Crisis Group interview, Najaf, March 2018.Hide Footnote Najaf would particularly applaud any Saudi efforts to limit anti-Shiite rhetoric among Sunni clerics with television or social media platforms.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Sadrist MP, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote Intolerant speech on Saudi television networks leaves a poisonous aftertaste, giving the impression that the kingdom subscribes to a sectarian interpretation of Iraqi society that Iraqis themselves resist. Shiite clerics suggest that, as host to the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia could also open up more pilgrimage slots for Iraqi Shiites.[fn]By some accounts, the kingdom has already eased its limitations on Shiite rituals during the hajj in recent years. Crisis Group interview, Sadrist MP, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote

It may be difficult for Riyadh to properly calibrate its engagement with Najaf – to walk the line between appropriate indications of support and excessive politicisation. Simple, non-confessional gestures may prove best in the short term. As in the rest of Iraq, Najaf sees Saudi economic engagement as vital to rebuilding trust.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Shiite cleric, Najaf, March 2018.Hide Footnote The senior cleric said: “We hope [the Saudis] will open many places here – academic institutions, education, business. … Help the Iraqi people recover from the mistakes of others. Don’t repeat the mistakes of the past, and don’t make us choose sides”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Shiite cleric, Najaf, March 2018.Hide Footnote

A sign welcomes visitors to Najaf. This center of Shiite religious scholarship has seen an economic boom in recent years, amid better security and the opening of a new international airport. CRISISGROUP/Elizabeth Dickinson

D. Sunni Arab Leaders

Some Sunni Arab leaders feel they are being overlooked in the renewed outreach from Riyadh. Sunni Arabs expect Gulf states to support post-ISIS reconstruction of their cities, and many Shiite policymakers agree.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Sunni MP, Baghdad, March 2018. Many Iraqi Shiite politicians hold Saudi Arabia responsible for the rise of ISIS through its longstanding promotion of Salafi Sunni Islam. They argue Riyadh should take responsibility for its alleged role by rebuilding areas destroyed in the fight against ISIS. Crisis Group interview, Iraqi academic close to the government, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote So far, however, the vast majority of investor interest has been in the Shiite-dominated south, the location of Iraq’s main oilfields, where the Iraqi National Investment Commission is seeking to direct the bulk of foreign investment in oil, gas and petrochemicals.[fn]“Iraq Investment Map 2017”, National Investment Commission, 2017. The U.S. is also concerned about the lack of regional distribution in reconstruction pledges. A defence official said, “different parts of the U.S. government were excited about what came out [of the Kuwait reconstruction conference], but we also recognised that a lot of the investment and proposals were for areas that were not actually affected [by conflict]. There are a lot of proposals for Shia areas, very few for Sunni areas, almost none for Kurdish areas”. Crisis Group interview, phone, April 2018.Hide Footnote “Let the Gulf states forget about Sunni politicians, but let them not forget our areas”, a Sunni Arab parliamentarian said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Sunni MP, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote

In fact, some Gulf countries have quietly supported and financed Sunni Arab politicians in Iraq for many years – to debatable effect.[fn]The same phenomenon took place before the 2010 parliamentary elections, when Qatar and Turkey funded a nominally non-sectarian list headed by Iyad Allawi.Hide Footnote From at least 2017 onward, several Gulf countries and Turkey were involved in hosting events aimed at uniting Sunni Arab political leaders ahead of Iraq’s 2018 elections.[fn]See, for example, “مصدر لـ”الخليج أونلاين”: تشكيل تحالف عراقي “سني” جديد”, Al-Khaleej, 9 March 2017.Hide Footnote But each country’s support aligns with its respective interests and political preferences.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UN official, February 2018; Western diplomat, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote Reflecting a broader geopolitical split in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and the UAE tend to favour secular coalitions and co-tribesmen (such as the Shammar), while Qatar and Turkey have generally supported Sunni Islamists.[fn]The UAE denies funding individuals, though some politicians enjoy visibility in UAE-aligned media outlets. Crisis Group interview, Gulf official, April 2018.Hide Footnote A senior UAE official said:

A more secular Iraq is a better Iraq. We don’t want a Shiite or Sunni Iraq. … [Nationalists] is who we support. We will definitely not support, on the Shiite side, those who are pro-Iranian, and on the Sunni side, those who are pro-Islamist.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior UAE official, Abu Dhabi, March 2018. Both at home and abroad, the UAE is opposed to political Islamists, viewing their ideology as a gateway to extremist views.Hide Footnote

External patrons have at times channelled funding through Iraqi exiles and businessmen with their own agendas or without a clear constituency on the ground.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior Iraqi security official, Baghdad, March 2018; Western diplomat, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote “They put all their money on political figures to give life to dead horses”, an Iraqi official said. “This is not a good investment and it won’t help Iraq”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Iraqi security official, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote

Asking Gulf countries to stop their political patronage of nationalist leaders and Sunni Arabs more broadly is unrealistic and could even undermine their ability to compete politically, as Iran also funds preferred candidates across ethnic and confessional lines.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Iraqi official, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote There is also no law on the books prohibiting foreign campaign finance.[fn]Crisis Group correspondence, al-Nahrain Center for Strategic Studies official, April 2018.Hide Footnote

The targeting of patronage may be improved, however, to support Iraq-based politicians with proven track records of delivering services to their constituents. Saudi Arabia and fellow Gulf patrons could shift their financial focus toward improving local economic conditions, for example financing projects in the seven provinces the government has prioritised for reconstruction. In their engagement with Shiite politicians, Saudi Arabia could also push for some specific Sunni Arab demands, such as the withdrawal of PMUs from towns and neighbourhoods now that the military dimension of the fight against ISIS is more or less in the past.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Sunni MP, Baghdad, March 2018. Saudi leaders took some steps in this direction in conversations with Sadr. By one account of the cleric’s visit to Riyadh in August 2017, “Saudi officials said they were worried about the future of Sunnis in Iraq and the permanence of the Hashd al-Shaabi. Sadr told them, ‘Sunnis are our brothers and we will protect them if there is any danger their well-being will be threatened’”. Crisis Group interview, Sadrist MP, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote

A failure by Saudi Arabia to sufficiently engage in Sunni Arab areas could, in a plot twist, encourage these communities to turn to Iran for both economic aid and help in managing their relationship with the PMUs. A Qods force strategist said that Iran has begun improving relations with Sunni Arab groups and “can play a mediatory role [between Sunni and Shiite politicians], as it did in uniting some anti-Daesh [ISIS] Shiite and Sunni groups now equipped and mobilised in the framework of the Hashd al-Shaabi”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Qods force strategist, Tehran, March 2018.Hide Footnote

E. Iran’s Response

Some parts of the Iranian government appear interested in the opportunity for Iraq to serve as a theatre of de-escalation.

Iran’s reaction to Saudi engagement is the topic of intense speculation in Baghdad political circles. Some see common interests. Iran may need to devote less blood and treasure to supporting Iraq if Saudi Arabia contributes economically.[fn]Crisis Group interview, academic close to the government, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote Others warn that Iran-allied politicians and militias are planning to embarrass, politically disrupt or even attack Saudi interests in Iraq.[fn]Crisis Group correspondence, Iraqi journalist, March 2018. One taste of the possible disruption tactics came in late March 2018, when several hundred people protested in Baghdad against a rumoured visit by the Saudi crown prince to Iraq. The Saudi foreign ministry quickly issued a statement denying any plans for a visit. Emailed statement, Saudi Arabia Center for International Communication, 31 March 2018.Hide Footnote What is clear is that Tehran is watching Riyadh’s moves closely. An Iraqi academic close to Najaf noted, “by definition, if the Saudis are serious, we can’t expect a win-win for all. The Iranians are going to be very anxious about what that means for their influence and presence”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, February 2018.Hide Footnote

At least some parts of the Iranian government appear interested in the opportunity for Iraq to serve as a theatre of de-escalation, if it aligns with trends toward conciliation between Tehran and Riyadh – and by extension Washington – elsewhere in the region.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior official at Iraq reconstruction organisation, Tehran, March 2018.Hide Footnote Yet even among those in Tehran who hope for better relations expect the opposite, because they believe Riyadh “started this process only because they want to defeat Iran”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Middle East analyst, President Hassan Rouhani’s office, Tehran, March 2018.Hide Footnote

Iranian officials across government downplay the Saudi role as limited and nothing to fear, particularly in weakening Iran’s influence.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Qods force strategist, Tehran, March 2018.Hide Footnote Iran, they say, has better trade ties, deeper penetration of the security sector and more political clout across a far broader array of actors.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior diplomat, Iranian Foreign Affairs Ministry, Tehran, March 2018. A U.S. defence official described the Iranian strategy as being “to spread the money as widely as they can”. Crisis Group interview, phone, April 2018.Hide Footnote To the extent that Tehran sees Riyadh engaging with Shiite politicians, Iranian policymakers see an affirmation of just how much power the Shiite political class has consolidated – with their help.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Middle East analyst, President Rouhani’s office, Tehran, March 2018.Hide Footnote A senior Iranian foreign ministry official said, “it is good for Iran that Saudi Arabia has decided to deal with the central government in Baghdad. Their opening a consulate in Najaf means they are recognising Najaf”.[fn]Crisis Group discussion, May 2018.Hide Footnote

Based on the pattern so far, Riyadh can expect a continuation of low-level harassment from Iran-allied groups in Iraq in the coming months. This could manifest itself in the anti-Saudi campaign in Iranian and allied Iraqi media outlets and PMU posturing along the Saudi Arabian border. Perceived Saudi oversteps – reaching too deeply or directly into the security establishment, which Iran has effectively penetrated but does not control – could trigger a stronger reaction.[fn]Crisis Group interview, UN official, phone, February 2018.Hide Footnote That pushback could include protests or threats against Saudi companies or businessmen.[fn]Crisis Group correspondence, Iraqi journalist, March 2018.Hide Footnote Tehran or pro-Iranian groups could also attempt to undermine some of the Shiite politicians who have engaged with Riyadh and been critical of Iran, as has already happened. After Sadr visited Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, several Iranian media outlets described the cleric as a pawn in a Saudi plan to split Iraq’s Shiites.[fn]A senior official at the Iraq reconstruction organisation in Tehran said, “the Shiite groups that seek better relations with Saudi Arabia, like Moqtada al-Sadr, are not the main influential Shiite groups in Iraq”. Crisis Group interview, Tehran, March 2018. See also, “اهداف و زوایای سفر مقتدا صدر به عربستان”, Mehr News Agency, 1 August 2017.Hide Footnote Finally, an Iraqi official suggested that Iran may attempt to “buy back” certain politicians being courted by Riyadh.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Iraqi official, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote

Saudi escalations of the war in Yemen, or in Bahrain, Syria or Lebanon, could reverberate in Iraq, where Iran has an ample supply of allies to call upon.

Gulf countries will need to have thick skins to resist withdrawing or taking rash or counterproductive steps if they face media broadsides or political setbacks in the months ahead.[fn]Crisis Group interview, UAE senior official, Abu Dhabi, March 2018.Hide Footnote They will need patience, a tolerance for risk and criticism, and restraint – for example, understanding that PMU behaviour is at times linked to local political disputes, not only to Tehran’s druthers.

External developments, however, may prove pivotal in determining whether a Saudi-Iranian balance is possible. The U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, announced on 8 May, could provoke Tehran to attack Gulf or U.S. interests in the region more directly.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Western diplomat, Abu Dhabi, April 2018.Hide Footnote Several Iranian officials attributed Riyadh’s Iraq strategy to Washington, raising concerns that an escalation in Saudi-Iranian tensions could present a risk to U.S. forces on the ground.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Qods force strategist, Tehran, March 2018; Middle East analyst, President Rouhani’s office, Tehran, March 2018; U.S. defence official, phone, April 2018.Hide Footnote The Iranian response will also depend on Saudi Arabia’s actions elsewhere in the region. Saudi escalations of the war in Yemen, or in Bahrain, Syria or Lebanon, could reverberate in Iraq, where Iran has an ample supply of allies to call upon.

IV. A Saudi-Iraqi Reset

Restarting a relationship after a quarter-century’s break will entail compromises on both sides. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies need to understand Iraq’s fragility and the urgency of stabilising it politically and economically, not weakening it further by turning it into a ring for sparring with Iran. Iraq, for its part, should take seriously Gulf concerns about corruption and security and find ways to address the most pointed issues to enable reconstruction. The following three areas merit special attention:

Facilitating Rapid Progress on Reconstruction

Riyadh and its allies will need to play the long game in Iraq and therefore may have to tolerate low or negative returns on investment in the early years. Gulf governments or public finance institutions can help make investments more attractive to the private sector, as they have begun to do with credit and export guarantees.

Saudi Arabia could also consider sending liaisons from its chambers of commerce to work in its embassy and consulates in Iraq and facilitate contacts and paperwork.[fn]Crisis Group interview, consultant to oil sector, phone, February 2018.Hide Footnote Gulf countries could offer assistance to Iraq’s efforts to join the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Membership would reduce some of the uncertainty concerning regulations and dispute resolution that currently deters trading partners.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Gulf diplomat, Riyadh, February 2018. Iraq indicated its intent to restart accession talks with the WTO in November 2017.Hide Footnote More peripherally, Saudi Arabia, as well as the UAE and Qatar, could loosen visa access for Iraqis seeking work or medical care, as well as for students.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Iraqi investor, February 2018; senior Shiite cleric, Najaf, March 2018; Iraqi security researcher, Baghdad, March 2018. A Qods force strategist claimed that 100,000 Iraqis travel to Iran for medical treatment each year. Crisis Group interview, Tehran, March 2018.Hide Footnote

In supporting reconstruction, Riyadh should use its expanding political network to give a boost to state institutions. Many communities in need of post-ISIS reconstruction remain deeply distrustful of the government’s will and ability to rebuild their areas.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Sunni MP, Baghdad, March 2018; and Western security official, March 2018.Hide Footnote Saudi Arabia could carry out projects in coordination with the Iraqi government, jointly branded with the kingdom’s signage. Doing so could enhance the credibility of both Saudi allies and the government.

For its part, Iraq needs to better prioritise reconstruction projects that create jobs or restore services. Some of the potential projects advertised at the Kuwait conference – such as urban metro systems – struck investors as vanity projects.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Gulf diplomat, Riyadh, February 2018; former Iraqi security official, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote Agricultural rehabilitation, job-creating construction, housing and vital service infrastructure are better fits – and would distribute investment across Iraq’s regions.[fn]“Major Strategic Large and Medium-Sized Projects Available for Investment According to Sector”, Iraq National Investment Commission, February 2018.Hide Footnote Once projects and investors are identified, the Iraqi National Investment Commission should aim to accelerate paperwork, calling upon political leaders to lean on the bureaucracy if necessary. As is already the case, the Iraqi government should be willing to find financing arrangements that avoid injecting cash into state coffers. As an Iraqi academic put it: “Iraqis don’t want cash anymore – the model we prefer is: ‘you implement it’”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Iraqi academic close to the government, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote

Improving Saudi Arabia’s Relationship with Shiite Communities

Riyadh can knock down the single greatest public opinion barrier to its engagement with Iraq by taking concrete measures to unravel its historical denial of the legitimacy of Shiite theology and rituals. The Saudi royal family has traditionally left Islamic jurisprudence in the hands of the state-sanctioned Council of Senior Religious Scholars. Without weighing in on theology, the Saudi government could prohibit defamatory language in weekly sermons and online materials, while reviewing curriculum and other state documents for offensive material.[fn]The Council of Senior Religious Scholars and associated clerics have issued fatwas and rulings denouncing Shiite practices and customs; an anti-Shiite bias persists in school curriculums and popular conversations. “They Are Not our Brothers: Hate Speech by Saudi officials”, Human Rights Watch, 26 September 2017.Hide Footnote The kingdom could legislate stronger policies against sectarian labour discrimination, criminalise disparagement of Shiites in the education system, and ensure that its own ministries and agencies deliver services equally to Shiite communities.[fn]“International Religious Freedom Report for 2016: Saudi Arabia”, U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, 2017.Hide Footnote These are major steps, but they will be necessary if the kingdom is truly intent on bettering its relationship with Shiites across the region. Some in Iran are also optimistic about this potential. A senior foreign ministry official said, “the results of the reform inside Saudi Arabia will be good for Iran, because it will reduce sectarian conflict”.[fn]Crisis Group discussion, May 2018.Hide Footnote

Changing entrenched Saudi Arabian biases against Shiites will take time, but signals from the leadership about what is and is not acceptable in the discourse will help.

A still stronger political move would be for Saudi Arabia and the Muslim World League, the kingdom’s global vehicle for propagating Islam, to signal alignment with the decisions of the pre-eminent Sunni scholarly centre, al-Azhar in Cairo, which recognises the Jaafari (Shiite) school of Islamic law taught in Najaf.[fn]While there has been some dissent among al-Azhar scholars, the school maintains its 1959 fatwa recognising the legitimacy of Jaafari interpretations. See “Al-Azhar verdict on the Shia”,  Al-Islam.org.Hide Footnote The Saudi leadership could also speak publicly about tolerance for Shiite religious practice, as they have begun to do already.[fn]MbS said of Saudi Arabia’s Shiites: “All of us are Muslim, all of us speak Arabic, we all have the same culture and the same interest .… [W]e believe that we are a mix of Muslim schools and sects”. Quoted in Jeffrey Goldberg, “Saudi crown prince: Iran’s supreme leader ‘makes Hitler look good’”, The Atlantic, 2 April 2018. This positive sentiment could, however, prove counterproductive if anti-Shiite rhetoric is simply repackaged as anti-Persian discourse that directs the same prejudices toward a new target.
 Hide Footnote
Changing entrenched Saudi Arabian biases against Shiites will take time, but signals from the leadership about what is and is not acceptable in the discourse will help.

Sadr’s visit to the Gulf offered additional ideas for the Iraqi context: Saudi Arabia could invest economically in Shiite communities and engage Shiite tribes who live on both sides of the Saudi-Iraqi border. As a sign of respect to Shiites in Saudi Arabia, the kingdom could rebuild the four tombs of the Shiite imams of al-Baqi’ in Medina; the kingdom demolished these tombs, which Shiite practitioners consider holy, in 1926.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Sadrist MP, Baghdad, March 2018. Rebuilding these religious sites would be symbolically significant because past Sunni critiques of Shiite practice focus on its supposedly excessive veneration of descendants of the Prophet. A Saudi gesture toward rehabilitation of the shrines would thus be a sign of respect for Shiite rituals.Hide Footnote Numerous Iraqi interlocutors suggested that Saudi Arabia should avoid building Salafi mosques in Iraq. Shiites are highly sensitive to any indication the kingdom might encourage extremism and intolerance.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, former Iraqi security official, Baghdad, March 2018; Western diplomat, Baghdad, March 2018.Hide Footnote An Iraqi academic close to Najaf’s clerical elite said, “let them build schools in Sunni areas, be present in the Sunni areas, so long as they are sensitive about it”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, phone, February 2018.Hide Footnote

Keeping Iraq Out of Saudi-Iranian Regional Competition

Iraq could become a de-escalation zone in Saudi-Iranian tensions. But, at a minimum, it would require its politicians and officials to proactively identify shared interests between Riyadh and Tehran and encourage both sides to move toward convergence. Some Saudi and Iranian officials are already seeing common ground, including in boosting the Iraqi economy, preventing the re-emergence of ISIS, maintaining Iraq’s territorial integrity and reducing sectarian conflict.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, former Saudi official, May 2018; Iranian foreign ministry senior official, May 2018.Hide Footnote Oil policy could also help build trust, as all three countries would prefer a higher medium-term market price.

Whether Iran and Saudi Arabia can be persuaded to actively cooperate on these and other areas of potential alignment remains to be seen, but both would stand to gain. Riyadh and Tehran are now bogged down in costly regional engagements that distract the governments from domestic priorities. None of those conflicts, or the sectarian stories grafted upon them, will be resolved without a détente between these regional giants. “We are trying to put away the sectarian conflict”, a senior Saudi official said of the kingdom’s regional goals.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Riyadh, January 2018.Hide Footnote A strategist in President Hassan Rouhani’s office said, “Iran also wants to decrease tensions and revive its ties with Arab countries. Iraqi-Saudi relations would be helpful to Iran’s efforts for this purpose”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Tehran, March 2018.Hide Footnote Simple first steps could include a joint statement or op-ed by Saudi and Iranian scholars or policymakers, indicating a shared commitment to Iraq’s future.

Still, for now, the potential for conflict is greater than the prospect of better ties. Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq will all need to remain vigilant to managing Saudi-Iranian tensions. Particularly with Shiite religious engagement, Saudi Arabia risks provoking an Iranian reaction if it oversteps or politicises the question of the marjaiya, for example attempting to force a rift between clerics in Najaf and Iran.[fn]An Iranian Qods force strategist said, “Iran’s first priority is to maintain its social ties with Shiite communities, marjaiya and clerics in Iraq who cannot be easily influenced by people like Sadr and Hakim. Currently, the economy of Shiite cities with holy sites is greatly entangled with 4,500,000 Iranian pilgrims who visit Iraq every year”. Crisis Group interview, Tehran, March 2018.Hide Footnote Najaf is keenly aware of this dilemma and Riyadh should take cues from there about how best to engage on the religious front. Making clear that the invitation is on the table, for example, Riyadh could leave the time and place for any public (or private) meetings with clerics in the hands of the marjaiya. As they have avoided doing so far, Saudi leaders should not mention Ayatollah Sistani in public discussions of politics. Riyadh should take care not to put religious figures – or any Iraqis for that matter – in the position of being asked to choose between Saudi Arabia and Iran as social, cultural or economic partners.

V. Conclusion

Given the host of challenges ahead, some analysts and politicians who welcome Riyadh’s return to Baghdad nonetheless fear the improvement in Iraqi-Saudi relations will not last. Leaders in both countries should be steadfast.

Saudi Arabia has the opportunity to construct a long-term policy toward Iraq that has deep social roots and buy-in. Supporting cross-confessional Iraqi political trends can offer the kingdom a new model of how to boost its influence and shore up regional stability. Whereas in Yemen Saudi Arabia played to Iran’s strengths (namely, its ability to work effectively in situations of state failure, in cooperation with non-state actors who are fighting Riyadh), in Iraq it is showing an ability to function through political and economic channels, where it possesses its own comparative advantage. For Iraq, too, there are important potential benefits: by balancing Saudi and Iranian influence, it can gain from the support of both without alienating either.[fn]A senior Iranian diplomat said, “Iran has come to the understanding that Sunnis are irrevocable parts of Iraq’s politics and thus Iran should try to keep a good relationship with moderate [Arab] Sunnis as it had done with [Sunni] Kurds. This is exactly the policy that Saudi Arabia tends to follow with regard to Shiites”. Crisis Group interview, Tehran, March 2018.Hide Footnote

In turn, stability in Iraq could have knock-on effects for regional conflicts around its borders, most notably in Syria. A stronger, physically and institutionally rebuilt Iraq would be more resilient against a re-emerging ISIS (or any future iteration). Better relations between Saudi Arabia and Shiite communities likewise could help roll back sectarian polarisation across the region, including in the kingdom itself.

Perhaps the best way to ensure that all sides stay the course is for Iraqis and Saudis to make political, social, economic and cultural investments that engender a dynamic of interdependency between their countries. If, for example, Saudi companies invest in Iraq, and Iraqi consumers come to depend on Saudi goods, the bilateral relationship would be far more sustainable, even in the face of political disputes.

The Iraqi ideal of becoming a bridge between regional powers may be years or decades off, but this optimistic moment is a chance to lay the foundation stones. Riyadh can help, and it should have an interest in doing so.

Riyadh/Baghdad/Brussels, 22 May 2018

Appendix A: Saudi Arabia's Investment in Iraq

Saudi Arabia's Investment in Iraq International Crisis Group

Appendix B: Damage and Total Reconstruction Needs per Sector

Damage and Total Reconstruction Needs per Sector Iraq, Reconstruction and Investment: Damage and Needs Assessment of Affected Governorates, Government of Iraq and the World Bank Group
Damage and Total Reconstruction Needs per Sector Iraq, Reconstruction and Investment: Damage and Needs Assessment of Affected Governorates, Government of Iraq and the World Bank Group