Saudi Arabia’s courting of Iraq’s Shia religious and political leaders over the past year has marked a clear shift in Riyadh’s policies towards Baghdad. But this rapprochement can go in one of two directions, according to analysts.
Riyadh’s efforts to engage Shia allies in Iraq could either defuse sectarianism across the country, or it could turn Iraq into another stage for Iranian-Saudi rivalries.
With politicians taking part in Iraq’s parliamentary elections in May hoping to form diverse, cross-sectarian coalitions, the vote stands to test whether Riyadh’s moves in Baghdad will gain enduring favour.
According to Fanar al-Hadad, a senior research fellow at the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore: “The groundwork for success of Saudi influence over Iraq is likely because there has been a high-level buy-in [among political elites]. But many of Riyadh’s eggs in Iraq are on hold until after the elections.”
Although Haider al-Abadi, Iraq’s prime minister, is probably set for another term – which would potentially allow for another four years of engagement with Saudi Arabia – it remains unlikely, however, that Riyadh will be able to displace Iran as the most influential foreign political actor in Iraq, analysts have said.
Unlike its sectarian approach towards Yemen and Lebanon, Saudi Arabia’s more nuanced policies towards Iraq can potentially make gains for both countries in the long-term.
“Saudi policy in Iraq seems to be more nuanced and well thought out than it has been in Lebanon and Yemen,” said Hadad.
“In the past, Saudi policy sought to undermine Iran’s position in Iraq by seeking allies from among Iraq’s oppositional spectrum, [which are] mainly Sunni.
“More recently, Riyadh has been trying to make inroads with Shia politicians and leaders from within the system, thereby fostering an acceptance of the post-2003 order.”
Mamoon al-Abbasi, an Iraqi journalist and analyst, said the same: “The Saudis came to the realisation that dealing with Ira