Alwaght- Kurdistan region has always been of greet significance to the Iraqi leaders. The federal system, in place since fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, as well as the separatist tendencies of some Kurdish sides in the autonomous region, including Kurdistan Democratic Party, trigger Iraqi leaders and even public’s obsession with the foreign movement in the region.
A set of issues, including the dispute over the region’s budget and oil sales, have been straining the Erbil-Baghdad relations over the past few years. As a result, Erbil set up economic relations with foreign sides independently. Last week, the region’s capital hosted a business-political delegation from Saudi Arabia. The office of the regional government’s head Nechirvan Barzani issued a statement saying that the two sides discussed cooperation opportunities, investment, and business and trade ties in various areas like industry, agriculture, and tourism. The Iraqi media outlets have reported that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) during the meetings reached agreements with the Saudis to launch direct Erbil-Riyadh flights and open a Saudi bank in the Kurdish region.
Saudi Arabia is establishing its relations with Erbil in a very special time and should have goals behind that.
Baghdad worried about Riyadh’s moves in Kurdistan
The Iraqi government obliterated the ISIS terrorist group across the country and restored stability to the nation. Now the authorities are obsessed with plans to reconstruct the ruined cities and the infrastructure and fix the deteriorated economic conditions. Suffering from a shortage of funding resources as a result of several years of war, Baghdad asked other countries for help to return to economic health. Saudi Arabia at the Kuwait conference in February, aimed to raise funds for Iraqi reconstruction, promised a $1.5 billion investment package to the Iraqi government. Despite that, the Iraqi home reaction to the recent movements of the Saudis in the Kurdish region indicates that Baghdad is concerned.
A day after the Saudi delegation visited the Kurdish region, Iskandar Watwit, the former deputy head of the Iraqi parliament’s Security and Defense Committee, expressed worries about the Saudi Arabian moves in Iraq, saying that the Saudis intend to sow division and also highlight the disputes between Erbil and Baghdad. Watwit won in May parliamentary election in a coalition largely against foreign meddling in the country.
The Iraqi concerns look justified as the statement by the Kurdish premier’s office, citing the Saudi delegation, said that Riyadh will prioritize business with Erbil— and not Baghdad as the capital— as it develops trade relations with Iraq. The analysts suggest that any foreign trade with the Kurdish region should be authorized by Baghdad as the capital representing the whole of Iraq. So, snubbing Baghdad in interaction with Erbil will automatically raise pessimism about the Saudi ties with the KRG.
Saudis long record of meddling in Iraq
This is not the first time that Saudis activities in Iraq provoke concerns and doubts. Riyadh’s actions in the country over the past few years triggered verbal clashes between the. Several years after fall of the former dictator Saddam Hussain, the Saudis kept their diplomatic relations with Iraq in the lowest level. It was 10 years after Saddam, in 2012, that Saudi Arabia opened its embassy in Baghdad.
Since the beginning, the Iraqi officials were critical of the Saudi ambassador’s intervention in their home affairs. The situation went to a level that in 2016 various parliamentary factions called on the government to expel the Saudi ambassador to Baghdad Thamer al-Sabhan. Pressures continued to build on Saudi Arabia until 2017 when Riyadh changed the ambassador responding to the Iraqi government’s demand.
According to the Kurdish media, the Saudi delegation was sent to Erbil by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman without coordination with Baghdad. The move proves that the Saudi intervention in Iraq affairs is a top-level power policy.
Riyadh-Tel Aviv harmony in Iraq
What calls attention about the Saudi moves in the Kurdish region is their harmony with the Israeli plans in northern Iraq. When the Erbil leaders were pushing for separation referendum in September 2017, the Israeli regime was the only supporter of Kurdistan split from Iraq. Saudi Arabia is currently going the same way. Its steps show that it is backing Iraqi split.
Tel Aviv wants Iraq, an ally to Iran and part of the Axis of Resistance, weak. This is part of the failed but still on agenda Greater Middle East scheme. Regarding that Saudis increasingly moving closer to Tel Aviv, it is not unlikely that Riyadh is carrying out the Israeli project of sowing dispute between Iraq’s central government and the Kurdish region to see the country enfeebled.
Saudi-engineered sedition for post-ISIS Iraq
The increasing Saudi interactions with the Kurdish region come while Iraq is just recovering from a devastating war against ISIS which captured a large part of the country in 2014 but was obliterated in 2017. It seems that the kingdom seeks a new dispute in the war-hit nation through the escalation of tensions between Erbil and Baghdad.
But Saudi Arabia’s hand is not open to arranging a new conflict. Aside from the home opposition, both from the political parties and even the Sunni public who are traditionally seen a base for Saudi Arabia influence in Iraq’s politics, neighbors like Iran and Turkey will not allow Riyadh to do adventures on their borders. Nawzad Hadi Mawlood, Erbil governor, in February 2016 during the ceremony of opening the Saudi consulate in Erbil said that Saudi Arabia coming to the Kurdish region carries an important message. “This is of huge significance to the region”, he was quoted as saying. The message was received at the time by Iran and Turkey who make no compromises on the security of Iraq and are expected to respond to destabilizing efforts vehemently. On the other side, Saudi Arabia does not seem to pick a fight against the two, as it is grappling with burdens like the Yemen war and a diplomatic crisis with Qatar. It will find it a must to pursue relations with Erbil through Baghdad gate, otherwise, it has to face regional pressures and heavy costs in foreign policy.