After many years of tension and hostility, in recent months there have been signs of significant rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iraq. This is prompting questions about the future of the relationship between the two countries, the motives for the rapprochement, the role that Saudi Arabia seeks to play in Iraq, and the impact of this rapprochement on the two countries vis-à-vis Iran.
The rapprochement began with the December 15, 2016 reopening of the Saudi Embassy in Iraq, and with Saudi Foreign Minister 'Adel Al-Jubeir's visit to Baghdad in February 2017. On March 29, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi and Saudi King Salman met during the Arab League summit, and in the following months other Iraqi officials visited Saudi Arabia, chief among them Prime Minister Al-Abadi in June 2017, Interior Minister Qassem Al-Araji in June and July 2017, and Iraqi Shi'ite leader Muqtada Al-Sadr in late July 2017. At the same time, Saudi Energy Minister Khaled Al-Falih visited Iraq in May, and Saudi Chief of Staff Abd Al-Rahman bin Salah went there in July.
So far, during August 2017, there have been more practical steps in Saudi-Iraqi cooperation, including the opening, to pilgrim traffic, of the land border crossing point between the two countries at 'Ar'ar for the first time since 1990. Saudi Arabia also announced the establishment of a Saudi-Iraqi coordination council, headed by Saudi Commerce and Investment Minister Dr. Majed bin Abdullah Al-Qasabi, who visited Baghdad on August 23 to discuss the actualization of "the strategic cooperation" between the two countries.
Officials from both countries have expressed optimism, emphasizing in their statements that Saudi-Iraqi relations are back on track. Figures such as Iraqi Oil Minister Jabbar Ali and Saudi Charge d'Affaires in Baghdad Abd Al-Aziz Al-Shammari both emphasized the many opportunities for economic cooperation between the two countries. Additionally, according to reports, there are contacts concerning extensive Saudi aid for rebuilding Iraqi cities that were destroyed under Islamic State (ISIS) rule and in the fighting against it.
It should be noted that also playing a role in the rapprochement are Iraqi and Saudi individuals considered undesirable and even hostile by the other side due to their positions on Iran's role in Iraq. One of these is former Saudi Ambassador to Iraq and current Gulf Affairs minister Thamer Al-Sabhan, who was expelled from Iraq and declared persona non grata in 2016 after he condemned Iran's interference in the country; he played an active part in the joint Saudi-Iraqi visit to the 'Ar'ar border crossing prior to its opening. Also, Iraqi Interior Minister Qassem Al-Araji, who was criticized in Saudi Arabia because of his links to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), was nonetheless warmly received during his Saudi visits.
Photo tweeted by former Saudi Ambassador to Iraq Thamer Al-Sabhan of himself with Iraqi officials during his visit to the 'Ar'ar border crossing. Source: @thamersas, August 16, 2017.
Because of the significant role played by Iran in the Iraqi political arena, the impact of the Saudi-Iraqi rapprochement on Saudi-Iranian relations is not yet clear. So far, statements on the matter have been conflicting: Iraqi Interior Minister Qassem Al-Araji announced that Saudi Arabia had asked Iraq to serve as a mediator between it and Iran, but this was denied by Saudi Arabia. At the same time, Saudi Charge d'Affaires Al-Shammari announced that Iraq-Iran relations were an internal Iraqi matter, in which Saudi Arabia was not intervening.
Saudi Arabian Commerce and Investment Minister Dr. Majed Al-Qasabi meets Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abad. Source: Alweeam.com.sa, August 23, 2017.
The Saudi press published a number of articles focusing on the Saudi-Iraqi rapprochement. They stressed the fierce competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran for political influence in Iraq, and noted that improved Saudi-Iraqi relations are part of the aim to bring Iraq back into the Arab camp, where it belongs, and thus weaken Iran's hegemony in the country.
The following are extensive excerpts from the articles:
Saudi Journalist: Saudi Arabia Can Break Iran's Hegemony On Iraq
In his article in the Saudi daily Al-Riyadh, Saudi journalist Ikrima Al-Ansari distinguished between the Shi'ites in Iraq and those in Iran, and took issue with the view that the former are politically and religiously subordinate to Iran. He praised Saudi Arabia's efforts to bring Iraq back into the family of Arab nations, adding that these efforts will reduce the problem of terrorism and crush Iran's hegemony in the country. He wrote:
"The latest Gulf move toward Iraq, led by Saudi Arabia, is a brave step and an effective start to bring this noble land [Iraq] back into the Arab fold, to rescue it from the Persian hegemony, and to rectify the mistakes made by the new rulers of Iraq after the [U.S.] invasion using [the system] of distributing [key positions within the regime] by representation according to sect, that began after the Ba'th regime was brought down. One of the disadvantages of this [system] is the emergence of the urge to split blatantly and violently along religious lines – the most murderous manifestation of which was the Islamic State [ISIS], which is currently in retreat on every front.
"The current diplomatic effort by the Gulf States, led by Saudi Arabia, [to return Iraq to the fold of the Arab world] will ensure Iraq's extrication from the maelstrom of conflicts among religious sects, and will reduce the problem of terrorism, which is used as an excuse for actions perpetrated by elements close to the new [i.e. today's] Iraq that is known to be under Iranian patronage. Iraq continues to be an important element in the regional equation, and one of the largest incubators for the trend of historical Arabism that the Shi'ite intellectuals played a pioneering role in establishing and perfecting.
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"Saudi Arabia's Arab and Islamic significance undoubtedly allow [it] to return Iraq to its natural habitat and to break Iran's hegemony [on it] and exclusive control of it – on the pretext that [Iran's] religious [Shi'a] ideology is identical to that of some of the elements [of the Iraqi population, that is, Iraqi Shi'ites]. But [Iraq's Shi'ites] have a literary and spiritual heritage from the Shi'ite ideology, and have no need of Iranian political or religious support – when the families of [Muqtada] Al-Sadr and [Muhammad Sa'id] Al-Hakim, for example, are descendants of the tribes of [the Prophet Muhammad's grandsons] Hassan Ben Ali [Ben Abu Talb considered the second Shi'ite imam] and Hussein Ben Ali [Ben Abu Talb, founder of Shi'ism]... The Shi'ization card should be taken away from Iran, because ultimately the first Shi'ites were pure Arabs, and so are their descendants today...
"Iraq needs the Gulf to bring it back into the Arab arena as an influential player, far from its role as the shadow representative of the [Iranian] mullah regime – which is how it is stereotyped today in the Arab street. This will be an important step toward ending the wars between sects and eliminating their sources of [ideological] nourishment, and also toward expunging the erroneous view that the Arab Shi'ites are subjugate to Iran."
Saudi Journalist: Saudi Arabia Has Filled The Political Vacuum In Iraq; Iran Is Expected To Express Opposition
Mustafa Fahas, columnist for the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, wrote that since Riyadh has dealt with the elements that allowed Tehran to take control of Iraq, Iranian opposition to Saudi efforts to reduce Iran's influence in Iraq should be anticipated. This opposition, he added, is likely to take the form of indirect confrontation with Saudi Arabia, as well as confrontation with power brokers in Iraq that support the Saudi-Iraqi rapprochement, starting with Muqtada Al-Sadr. He wrote:
"Iraq can no longer maintain itself as an entity without attaining secure, stable, and developing relationships with all its neighbors, without exception. This is what the official Iraqi delegation learned on its visit to the Saudi capital Riyadh during its meeting with senior Saudi officials... However, the equation facing Iraq right now is that it, as an independent entity, is treated differently by different neighbors – while Tehran insists on subordinating it politically and religiously, the Gulf States, first and foremost among them Saudi Arabia, repeatedly propose partnership and integration...
"Riyadh has already taken the steps necessary to fill the Arab vacuum that was created after the fall of the regime of Saddam Hussein in 2003, that allowed Tehran to take over Iraq. Therefore, it is difficult [to assume] that Iran will stand idly by in light of Saudi Arabia's attempts to compete with it for influence in Iraq, or to weaken its hegemony in that country's political decision-making.
"Iran still enjoys great influence among Iraq's Shi'ites, so it is capable of inciting them – whether toward indirect confrontation with Saudi Arabia, or toward confrontation with Iraqi elements that advocate rapprochement with Saudi Arabia. Therefore, at this stage, [reciprocal] criticism is intensifying, between Iran and its supporters in Iraq [on the one hand] and supporters of the Shi'ite leader Muqtada Al-Sadr along with supporters of the Iraqi government [on the other] – this, in light of the fact that the steps taken by Al-Sadr [i.e. his moving closer to Saudi Arabia] provided religious and popular support to the Iraqi government's rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, and ensured that there will be a change in the popular Shi'ite approach to Saudi Arabia which views Saudi Arabia [today] as a real partner and an eternal neighbor."
Saudi Columnist: Saudi Efforts Have Begun To Bear Fruit; We Must Take Care Lest Iraq Be Snatched From Us Again
Hamud Abu Talb, columnist for the Saudi daily 'Okaz, asserted that the improvement in Iraqi-Saudi relations is the result of Saudi efforts to assist Iraq, and warns of attempts by Iran and its allies to bring Iraq back into their sphere of influence. He writes:
"Saudi Arabia has invested tremendous and tireless efforts to bandage Iraq's wounds, to heal its pain, and to pull it [back] to its natural place among the Arab nations. These efforts began to bear fruit when Saudi Arabia hosted senior Iraqi political figures representing different sectors; the border with [Iraq] was opened; it was decided that flights should be instated [between the countries,] and that considerable [Saudi] aid should be sent to rebuild areas [in Iraq] that suffered damage [during the war].
"Iraq's return [to the Arab world] will definitely not go unnoticed by those elements that are trying to pull it far [away]. It will anger the agents of the plan to sow chaos among the Arab nations [i.e. Iran and its allies], and they will try to throw a wrench into its new and warm relations with the Gulf countries. The matter demands caution and great care, lest a noble nation that is dear to us be snatched [from us] once again."
Senior Saudi Editor: Muqtada Al-Sadr's Steps In The Gulf Are As Significant As Neil Armstrong's First Steps On The Moon
Following senior Shi'ite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr's Saudi visit, Mashari Al-Da'idi, Saudi journalist and senior editor at the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, wrote that this visit, like Al-Sadr's criticism of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, has historic importance for all Arabs and Muslims. This, he added, is because Al-Sadr's actions are reshaping Sunni-Shi'ite relations in Iraq, and constitute overt criticism of Iran. He wrote:
"The travels of popular Iraqi political leader and Shi'ite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr in Saudi Arabia and the UAE are arousing interest and opening a new window to hope... This effort on the part of this well-liked Iraqi leader who has broad influence among the grassroots Shi'ite population in Iraq is praiseworthy – not because he is 'kowtowing' to the Saudis or the UAE, as some may delude themselves into believing, but because he seeks a safe future for his homeland Iraq, and also – and this is significant – is making efforts to bury the great Sunni-Shi'ite civil war [that is underway] now.
"This Iraqi-Gulf openness is vital and exciting, albeit somewhat delayed. It was Saudi Arabia that initiated the openness, following the June announcement by Baghdad and Riyadh that they were establishing a Coordinating Council as part of the efforts to improve relations between them, and [following] Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir's Baghdad visit in February ...
"Some may view Muqtada Al-Sadr's steps as trivial; however, they may [actually] be an important step for all the Arabs and the Muslims at this fateful time – like the first step taken by American astronaut Neil Armstrong on the moon. [Al-Sadr] was the first Iraqi Shi'ite leader to call, in April , for Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to step down, in a manner that revealed his dispute with Iran and with the fighters it supports in order to assist the Syrian regime. [In addition,] Al-Sadr's office announced that the meeting with the emir [Saudi Crown Prince] Muhammad [bin Salman] in late July  led to an agreement to examine investment opportunities in the Shi'ite areas in southern Iraq."
 Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), July 20, 2017.
 aljazeera.com, August 15, 2017.
 Sadairaq.com, August 7, 2017; Alarabiya.net, August 15, 2017. Al-Hayat (Saudi Arabia), August 24, 2017.
 See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 1271, Saudi-Iraqi Tensions Rise After Saudi Ambassador Criticizes Iranian Involvement In Iraq, October 2, 2016.
 Alquds.co.uk, August 13, 2017.
 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), August 16, 2017.
 Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), August 17, 2017.
 Muhammad Sa'id Al-Hakim is one of the most prominent Shi'ite sources of authority in Najaf, Iraq, after Ali Sistani.
 Al-Ghad (Saudi Arabia), August 21, 2017.
 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), August 21, 2017.
 Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), August 16, 2017.