Alwaght- Saudi Arabia has stepped up its campaign for gaining a political foothold in Iraq over the past two years, mainly after the visit of its former Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir to Baghdad in February 2017. As part of such efforts, a Saudi delegation traveled to Iraq on Thursday, and reopened the Arab kingdom’s consulate in the capital Baghdad, and vowed to open diplomatic missions in other cities across the country.
A key drive for the Saudis to improve relations with neighboring Iraq and gaining weight in the politics of the important Arab country is curbing Iranian influence through impacting Tehran-Baghdad strategic relations for the final goal of a gap inside the body of the Axis of Resistance which contains, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine.
Implementation of this goal is very much tied to backgrounds and obstacles ahead of the expansion of influence of Saudi Arabia in Iraq with regard to the country’s current realities.
Iraq’s economic needs
Certainly, Saudis in their new approach towards post-ISIS Iraq take into consideration Baghdad’s economic challenges created by years of war and instability. Iraq will need cash to rebuild the war-ravaged regions and improve living conditions of people there.
Iraq has huge energy reserves, yet to be discovered and used for economic improvement. The scale of devastation in the country goes beyond imagination. Initial assessments suggest that the Arab nation will need $100 billion of cash to start rebuilding. But the government budget, $88 billion for 2018, is spent on the current payments due to bureaucratic corruption. In the middle of this situation, the Iraqi leaders set their eyes on the foreign financing for the state. In mid-February 2018, Kuwait hosted an international conference on Iraq reconstruction during which Riyadh promised $1.5 billion in aids to Baghdad.
Announcement of aids to Iraq was given huge media promotion, at a time an array of big Iraq cities, on top of them Basra in the south, were a scene to rallies in protest against deteriorating public services. In fact, the economic aspect of the countries’ soft power on the global arena to pursue interests without force has been on top of the Saudi agenda in Iraq. This is well observable during the recent visit of Saudi delegation to Iraq that they promised another aid package worth of $1 billion to Baghdad.
Ethno-sectarian structure of Iraqi society
Another ground allowing Saudi influence is Iraq’s politico-social structure that is largely based on ethno-sectarian foundations. In Sunni-majority regions, including Salahuddin, Nineveh, Al-Anbar, and Diyala, sectarian identity is highly cherished for people to get their politico-social positions. These regions have traditionally been the window for Riyadh striving towards getting a toehold and especially promoting Wahhabism and takfiri ideology, its version of Islam.
Iraqi nationalism and secularism
Another Saudi area of investment in Iraq is the secularity and pan-Arabism. The target of the new campaign are some Shiite factions with pan-Arab values that open the door for the Saudis to sway Iraq’s politics or at least distance Baghdad form the Resistance camp.
Risky or pro-development influence?
But beside grounds for swaying the Iraqi politics by Riyadh, Saudi Arabia finds itself in the face of strong obstacles that are hard to remove. First is the Iraqi public’s awareness of the genuine intention of the Saudis’ plans and investment in Iraq. Iraqis know that it is a conflict of interests that pushes Saudi Arabia to move closer to Iraq for the final objective of undermining Iraq’s improving influence and image in the regional equations. This intention has repeatedly shown itself in the form of the Saudi spurring of sectarianism, terrorism, and secessionism across Iraq.
The key aim is to hit Baghdad-Tehran relations as part of a broader American strategy in the region. But this has a meager chance of success as Iraqi people and politicians apparently point to Iran’s essential role in helping them pass such big challenges such as ISIS terrorism and separatism.
Riyadh’s questioned soft power and Iraq’s historical indomitability
There is another hurdle ahead of Riyadh. While the kingdom uses an overbearing model of policy in its regional policy, Iraq has been historically defiant to foreign domination. Even worse for the Saudis, Iraqi people have traditionally developed a sense of paramountcy in the Arab world. Historically, Iraq is of deep civilizational roots among other Muslim countries. The remains of ancient empires are observable almost in all parts of Iraq, signaling that it was a powerhouse of regional civilization.
In the modern era, Iraq’s pan-Arab nationalism has had special weight in competition against other rivals like Syria and Egypt. But Saudi Arabia has a long track record of interventionism and disrespect to other regional nation’s national sovereignty. Examples are the direct repression of the Bahraini pro-reform protests, detention of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri during his Riyadh visit, and imposing an economic blockade on Qatar, which is unwilling to quit its political independence under Saudi pressures.
Saudi Arabia showed a spirit and acts of meddling in Iraq even when it reopened its embassy in Baghdad after over two decades in 2015. Thamer al-Sabhan, the then Saudi ambassador to Baghdad, made remarks perceived in Iraq as disrespectful to the nation’s independence and Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a voluntary force set up in 2014 to fight ISIS. His comments aroused the ire of Iraqi politicians who pressed for his expulsion. He finally left Iraq. Saudi Arabia declined to apologize or name a new envoy.
Resistance discourse and Shiite clergy
Iraq, a dominantly Shiite country, enjoys a discourse of resistance to tyrannical foreign powers thanks to the Shiite Ashura culture which promotes resistance to oppression and bullying, taking pattern from the uprising of Imam Hussein, Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, against oppression. This tendency very well showed itself in May 2018 parliamentary elections in which the pro-resistance parties overwhelmingly won the new parliament.
Iraq-Iraq bonds are strengthened by unbreakable historical and cultural elements. Meanwhile, the Shiite clergy’s effective role in the country’s political and social developments is in full contrast to Al Saud policies that serve the US and Israeli regime’s approach of sowing ethno-sectarian division in the Muslim world. Moreover, Iraq’s political factions have always been critical of Saudi crimes against the Shiites in Bahrain and Yemen.