'Sadr's opposition to Tehran's regional politics paved way to Gulf visits'

'Sadr's opposition to Tehran's regional politics paved way to Gulf visits'
Muqtada al-Sadr’s visit to to the Gulf was triggered after the Shia cleric publicly denounced Bashar al-Assad and Baghdad's Iranian allies, Emirati press agencies said.
3 min read
16 August, 2017
The Iraqi cleric was invited to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi in recent weeks [Getty]
Prominent Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's visit to Abu Dhabi and Riyadh was triggered after the leader publicly opposed Tehran's regional politics, including calling for Syria's Bashar al-Assad to step down, UAE-owned publications said.

Sadr, who leads an Iraqi political party dubbed the Sadrist Movement, met with both Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed as well as Saudi royals to discuss regional issues while calling for Arab and Muslim unity during separate visits to the GCC countries in recent weeks.

The high-level meetings between the Iraqi leader and Arab Gulf leaders, including Saudi royals, "may be a precursor to a political dialogue among Iraq's various ethnic and sectarian groups," Emirati Gulf News said, in a message also carried by the UAE's official news agency WAM.

The visits follow tensions between Gulf powers and Iran, which is a major backer of the Baghdad government.

However Sadr's public opposition to the alleged corruption in the Iraqi government, as well as Tehran's political interference in the region, has seemingly caught the attention of his Gulf neighbours.

Earlier this year, al-Sadr had called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to "take a historic, heroic decision" and step down, to spare his country further bloodshed. While the move separated the leader's position from that of Iran, it paved the way for other regional players to approach the Shia cleric.

"Al-Sadr's influence as a key player in Iraq, who has long been publicly against Iranian influence in his country, is not lost on many. The cleric's demands that the Iraqi government disband the Shiite militias, known collectively as the Popular Mobilisation Forces, further solidified his position as a rational player in the deeply divided polity of Iraq," the publication continued.

Although Sadr led his own Shia militia during the US occupation of Iraq, he has since been perceived as a more pluralistic nationalist.

He has spoken out against the mistreatment of Sunni Muslims, called for Gulf-Iran dialogue, and also been seen as a champion of the poor.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and Iraq announced plans to open the border crossing between the two countries for the first time since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, following Sadr's visit to Riyadh.

The announcement follows a decision by the Saudi cabinet on Monday to establish a joint trade commission with Iraq.

Sadr's office said his meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman resulted in an agreement for Saudi Arabia to donate $10 million in aid to the Iraqi government.

It also opens up this possibility of Gulf investments in Shia regions of southern Iraq.