Iraq is the centre of a tug of war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, claims a report in the Economist. The two main rivals in the Middle East are locking horns for control of the region but Riyadh is said to be gaining ground against its adversary in Tehran.
Through the combination of aid and investment, Saudi has achieved what would have seemed impossible since Baghdad moved into the orbit of Iran following the fall of Saddam Hussain, Iraq’s former president. In Basra, where the soft power strategy has been the most effective, the future is looking so bright for the Saudis that they are now putting the finishing touches on a consulate in the town’s Sheraton Hotel.
Relations between the two countries had improved significantly, the report pointed out, citing the resumption of air links between Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Confidence has also grown to levels where state-owned businesses are now said to be registering offices in Baghdad. The level of Saudi commitment to improve relations with Iraq was also on display last month at a conference in Kuwait where the Saudi foreign minister, Adel Al-Jubeir, pledged $1 billion in loans and $500 million in export credit to support Iraq’s reconstruction.
Iraqi diplomats are said to have noted the disparity in help offered by Saudi Arabia and Iran, which according to the report pledged nothing at the conference in Kuwait. “Having failed to outfight Iran, the Saudis now want to outspend it,” an Iraqi official was quoted as saying.
The report explained that “Muhammad Bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, is shaking the Kingdom from its sectarian logic. In 2015 he was central to restoring diplomatic relations and last year reopened the Kingdom’s borders with Iraq. He has shifted money from Sunni politicians to more effective Shia ones. He has even hosted Muqtada Al-Sadr, a Shia cleric, and Qasim Al-Araji, Iraq’s interior minister who is close to Iran.”
Accusing Iran of seeking influence by “stoking sectarianism and gaining the allegiance of Shias,” the report says that Saudi Arabia has adopted a different non-sectarian tactic and “wants to win them [Iraq] back by reviving the country’s Arab identity, and setting Iraqis against Persian Iran.”
Basra, which is Iraq’s richest province, is at the centre of Saudi soft power initiative. A number of projects have been earmarked by the Saudis including reopening a moribund petrochemical plant, which, the authors say, “could help wean Iraq off Iranian products”. Saudis have also set their eyes on a strip of land along the border. The Kingdom wants to turn it into fertile fields by tapping underground aquifers.
It’s not all smooth sailing for the Saudis, the report points out, as Iranian-backed factions in Iraq are alleged to be attempting to sabotage the rapprochement with Saudi Arabia. Their politicians cite the 3,000 or so Saudis who joined Daesh. “How can we welcome our killers?” they protested.
But overall, concludes the report, the Saudi charm offensive has proven popular. “For all their sectarian bonds with Iranian Shias, the people of Basra fought on the front lines of Iraq’s brutal war with Iran. Many view Iranian engagement as colonisation,” the report pointed out.