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Saudi seeks to boost influence in Iraq, shift Iran away

April 5, 2019 at 4:22 pm

Flag of Saudi Arabia [Ahmet Bolat/Anadolu Agency]

Saudi Arabia has said that it aims to counter Iran’s influence by deepening ties with Iraq. Economic muscle will be used to strengthen Riyadh’s presence with its neighbour, traditionally a close ally of Tehran.

In the kingdom’s efforts to boost ties with Iraq, a delegation of more than 100 Saudi officials arrived in Baghdad this week, wielding a $1 billion grant for a sports stadium, according to the Financial Times. Majid Al-Qasabi, the Saudi trade minister, hailed the visit as the “beginning of a new phase in the relations.”

Yesterday Saudi Arabia opened a consulate in Baghdad and is reported to have pledged to open three more across the country.

The move is thought to be prompted by Iran’s deepening influence in Iraq which increased following the US led invasion of 2003. While Tehran capitalised on the instability due to cultural ties between the two majority Shia Muslim nations, Saudi Arabia’s influence in the region by contrast had been limited.

READ: Saudi soft power tactic paying dividends in Iraq

While relations between the two countries have historically been frosty, since 2016, “Riyadh has taken a more nuanced view of Iraqi politics that aims at chipping away at Iranian influence by denying Tehran the sectarian card”, according to Elizabeth Dickinson, senior analyst at International Crisis Group. Last year’s meeting between Saudi officials and Iraqi religious and political leaders in the Shia holy city of Najaf is seen as a thawing of hostility between the neighbours.

In contrast to cash-strapped Iran, the kingdom’s deep coffers make it an attractive partner, explained the FT. As Iraq tries to recover from decades of conflict, Baghdad hopes to draw foreign cash to help fix its crumbling infrastructure and rebuild war-ravaged cities. Last year, Saudi pledged a $1 billion loan for reconstruction in Iraq, plus $500 million in export credit.

Eighty Saudi and Iraqi investors were reported to have met at a business forum in Baghdad this week. Hamid Al-Mutlaq, a former MP who favours strengthening ties to Riyadh, was quoted saying: “We need to build a new Iraq, and that requires a lot of support.”

Analysts cited in the FT were sceptical about Saudi intentions. Daoud Al-Jumaili, head of the Iraqi National Business Council said “all countries want to benefit from Iraq but not benefit it. They want to sell their products in Iraq and have our country — which already imports $54 billion worth of goods per year — buy even more products from abroad.”

READ: Iran FM calls on Saudi Arabia to engage in dialogue