Muqtadr al-Sadr heralds Iraq's return to the Saudi-Arab fold

Muqtadr al-Sadr heralds Iraq's return to the Saudi-Arab fold
Comment: The recent rapprochement between Iraq and Saudi Arabia is the latest link in a chain of shifting alliances in the Middle East, writes Stasa Salacanin.
6 min read
25 Sep, 2017
Iraqi Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr appeared to have broken with Tehran by visiting Riyadh [SPA]

Meetings between senior Saudi and Iraqi officials over the past six months clearly signal a new page in the history of bilateral relations between the two countries after decades of mistrust and disagreement.

Saudi Arabia and Iraq have been fierce opponents of late, but a recent visit by Muqtada al-Sadr, the powerful Shia Iraqi cleric, who was received by Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, clearly show significantly improved relations.

"This visit was an important step in ensuring that Iraq returns to the Arab fold and is supported in doing so by friendly partners," said the former Saudi minister of state, Saad al-Jabri.

In the wake of the visit, Saudi Arabia took a variety of Iraq-friendly measures, including the opening of a Saudi Consulate in Najaf, where Sadr lives. In addition, warmer tones between Baghdad and Riyadh led to a partial border opening at Arar, the first on the 800km frontier since August 1990.

The move wasn't intended to signal a complete split between Sadr and Tehran, but simply to raise doubts in Tehran about how closely aligned Sadr really is

The enigmatic cleric

Sadr was a central figure in the sectarian war that ravaged Iraq from 2004 to 2008 - with complex ties to Iran. So it is no wonder the controversial firebrand cleric's arrival in the Saudi capital caught the attention of international media.

Many, over the past several years, have expected to see Riyadh play a more proactive role in Iraq, especially among the Sunni populations in Mosul, Fallujah, Ramadi and Tikrit. Before travelling to the kingdom, Sadr said he wanted to defuse tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran to help stabilise the region.

But Sadr has long been something of an enigma.

"I'm not on firm ground about Muqtada al-Sadr. I can't figure out what he really wants," Thomas Lippman, a former Middle East bureau chief of the Washington Post told
The New Arab.

Read more: Sadr's Gulf visit indicates Iran's weakening grasp on Baghdad

His army of followers and capacity to mobilise the masses, combined with his father's legacy, makes him one of the most powerful players in Iraq. Sadr emerged as the voice of the Shia majority in Iraq, like his father - a strong opponent of the Saddam Hussein regime in the 1990s and subsequently a symbol of Shia resistance following his assassination in 1999.

Sadr came into the media spotlight after the US invasion of Iraq as a fierce opponent of American aggression and occupation. The armed wing of his movement, previously known as the Mahdi Army, led a guerrilla campaign against the US occupiers. This group was also responsible for its escalation of sectarian clashes as well as its involvement in criminal activities.

Ideologically, Sadr has been popularly received as a hard-line Iraqi nationalist. In the past, he benefited from Iran's support and even spent three years in self-imposed exile in the Islamic Republic. Later he took a more independent stance towards Iran, although his militia, Saraya al-Salam, was extensively supported by Iran's Revolutionary Guard.

His visit to Saudi Arabia, therefore, caught many by surprise.

Christopher Meserole, a fellow at the Centre for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute believes Sadr's visit to Saudi Arabia was a message to Tehran that he has other options.

"He wanted to burnish his image as a statesman that can transcend Iraqi politics," Meserole said.

"It gives him greater leverage over Iran while also elevating his stature above other Iraqi Shia politicians. For Riyadh, meanwhile, the move was designed to show Tehran that it is capable of interfering with its key proxies in the region."

But Sadr's decision may have been forced by Iran. Michael Pregent, a senior Middle East analyst and adjunct fellow at the Washington DC-based Hudson Institute, told The New Arab that Sadr had recently been marginalised by Iran.

Tehran has shown a preference for Revolutionary Guard proxy militias in Iraq over Sadr's Mahdi Army - militias such as the Badr Corps, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, and Kata'ib Hezbollah, said Pregent.

Read more: Humanitarian? Youth worker? Or Iraqi warlords' PR man? Who is Haitham al-Mayahi?

"Sadr is smart to court the KSA as a counter to Iranian influence in Shia areas. After all, Sadr is considered an Iraqi nationalist and will regain respect with Iraqi Sunnis by inviting the Saudis into areas like Najaf, Karbala, and Samara - traditional Iranian areas of influence."

A message to Iran

While many see Riyadh's new influence in Iraq as a sign that Iran's monopoly over Iraq is on the wane, it's hard to imagine that Tehran will just sit back and accept Saudi Arabia extending its sphere of influence.

Iran has been devoting resources to Iraqi Shia for decades, and has built extensive economic, cultural and political ties with them. The country has created transportation and logistical infrastructure to move soldiers and weapons through Iraq to proxy forces in Syria and Lebanon.

"The KSA can do more for Iraq than Iran can and that's a good thing," said Pregent.

"Iraq needs to be brought back into the Arab sphere to take its former place as a bulwark against Iranian expansion and influence in the Levant." In short, Saudi Arabia is attempting to counter Iranian influence by investing in its northern neighbour.

But while Iraq's closer relations with its Arab neighbours will help the Baghdad government reduce its dependency on Iran, Majidyar notes that a Riyadh-Baghdad rapprochement does not mean the current or next Iraqi government will turn its back on Iran.

"Iran shares the longest border with Iraq and exerts significant hard power and soft power influence in the country," said Majidyar.

"Understanding Iran's ability to foment instability in Iraq, the Baghdad government will try to keep friendly relations with Tehran and seek Iranian assistance in post-ISIS stabilisation efforts."

Meserole agreed, adding: "It would be premature to say that Saudi Arabia has pulled Iraq from Iran's grasp.

"The move wasn't intended to signal a complete split between Sadr and Tehran, but simply to raise doubts in Tehran about how closely aligned Sadr really is."  


Some say that the recent Iraqi-Saudi rapprochement may even initiate dialogue between Iran and Saudi Arabia. But Majidyar thinks the fragile Baghdad government, still grappling with terrorism and internal instability, will not be able to bridge long-standing differences between Riyadh and Tehran.

If Baghdad can maintain close relations with its two rival neighbours, however, Iraq could become a common ground for regional cooperation between Riyadh and Tehran in the future.

It seems that the Saudis finally came to realise that their ostracism of Iraq was counter-productive. Their aggressive foreign policy in the region under King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud and his favourite son has turned into a debacle. All it did was leave an open playing field for Iran.

Lippman said the Saudis were now belatedly trying to rectify that, through economic and diplomatic engagement.

"What happens over the next few years may depend on the Kurds," said Lippman.

"If they remain in the Baghdad government, that government is unlikely to become entirely an instrument of Shia politics. I don't think there's much that the Saudis can do about that - especially if they remain tied down in Yemen."

Stasa Salacanin is a freelance journalist who has written extensively on Middle Eastern affairs, trade and political relations, Syria and Yemen, terrorism and defence.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.