Why is Saudi Arabia finally engaging with Iraq?

Flags of Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

After decades of isolating Iraq, Saudi Arabia is finally engaging its northern neighbor. The Saudis have been very reluctant to accept a Shia-led government in Iraq. The main border crossing at Arar was finally opened last month, after a 30-year closure dating to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The Saudis’ recent round of engagement dates to 2015, when they belatedly sent an ambassador to Baghdad, after cutting off relations 25 years before. The Saudi foreign minister visited the Iraqi capital in 2017, the first by a senior official since then-Saudi ambassador to the U.S. Prince Bandar went in early 1990. The Saudis opened a consulate in Basra in 2019. Opening the Arar border crossing is the biggest step towards normalization of relations since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Prior to 2015, however, the Saudis missed a critical opportunity to engage with the Iraqis — a missed opportunity that benefited Iran. In the summer of 2006, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, having attained the Iraqi premiership a few months before, visited the kingdom and met with King Abdullah. Abdallah concluded after the one meeting that Maliki and his government were stooges of Iran. They could not be trusted. He decided not to engage further. In doing so, Abdullah reinforced the bad American decision to invade Iraq with a bad Saudi decision not to help stabilize his neighbor.

Today, Maliki is widely viewed as a strong ally of Iran. This view is misleading. Maliki was no paragon of virtue — as prime minister, he was authoritarian and often took highly sectarian positions — but he was and is, above all, an Iraqi nationalist. Moreover, as prime minister, Maliki sought to reintegrate Iraq back into the Arab fold and pursue an independent course from Iran. Indeed, Maliki’s trip to Saudi Arabia in 2006 — his first trip abroad as prime minister — was a signal of his desire to reestablish Iraq’s rightful place in the Arab world.

For years thereafter, Maliki and other senior members of his government attempted to establish an opening to Saudi Arabia, but King Abdullah never reconsidered his decision to isolate them. In 2012 Baghdad hosted an Arab summit to which Riyadh sent a junior delegation in a royal snub. Other Arab states also sent junior representatives. As late as 2013, Maliki and other Iraqi officials made efforts to engage. The Saudis’ attitude to Iraq was substantially different from that of Iraq’s other Arab neighbors. Arab states such as Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan began to engage meaningfully with Iraq in the late 2000s. But without Saudi engagement, the other Arabs counted little in Baghdad.

Without Saudi engagement, the other Arabs counted little in Baghdad.

So why did Abdullah mistrust Maliki so deeply? Powerful beliefs within the Saudi leadership about Iran and the Arab Shia worked against the Iraqis. For decades, the Saudis have seen Iran as inherently expansionist, and the view that the Shia of the Arab world are loyal to Iran is a deeply ingrained stereotype among Sunni Arabs, including the Saudis. What’s more, the Saudis’ Wahhabi faith anathematizes the Shia. Given these beliefs, Saudi leaders concluded as soon as the U.S. invaded Iraq and started to empower the Iraqi Shia that the Americans had “handed Iraq to Iran on a silver platter,” as they have repeated constantly since 2003.

The Saudi beliefs about Iran and the Arab Shia distorted their understanding of what was going on in Iraq.

But the Saudi beliefs about Iran and the Arab Shia distorted their understanding of what was going on in Iraq, and led them to discount actions Maliki took that actually undermined Iranian influence in his country. The most significant such action was Maliki’s decision to launch the Charge of the Knights campaign against the Iraqi Sadrists, then considered Iran’s primary Iraqi proxy, in spring 2008. Charge of the Knights earned Maliki major plaudits from prominent Iraqi Sunni Arab leaders such as then-Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi as well as Ahmad Abu Risha, leader of the Anbar Awakening. King Abdullah, by contrast, remained convinced that Maliki was nothing but an Iranian puppet.

The Saudis’ decision not to engage with Iraq had enormous repercussions. On a basic level, the Saudis, in refusing to engage, deprived Iraq of an Arab counterweight that would have helped it balance its relationship with Iran. Being shunned by the Arab world’s most important player, the Iraqis struggled to reintegrate themselves into the Arab fold, making them more dependent on Iran. But in addition, the Iraqis interpreted the Saudi decision not to engage as a profound Saudi hostility toward Iraq’s new order. In time, the Iraqis began to feel deeply threatened by those whom many Iraqis believed sought to reverse Iraq’s post-2003 Shia ascendance. Saudis flocked to join al-Qaida in Iraq in 2006 and 2007, encouraged by the Wahhabi. The sense of threat the Iraqis perceived from Saudi Arabia only enhanced their reliance on Iran.

Riyadh’s decision not to engage with Iraq also reveals a fundamental contradiction that lay at the heart of the U.S. decision to pursue regime change in Iraq. The Bush administration did not set out to empower the Iraqi Shia as such, but their decision to replace Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship with democracy naturally allowed Iraq’s Shia majority to rise to power. Their project, if it was going to be successful, required that the new Iraq be accepted by its neighbors. To that end, the Bush team put considerable pressure on the Saudis to engage with Iraq — George W. Bush himself lobbied Abdullah to engage, albeit to no avail. King Abdullah viewed a Shia-led Iraq as antithetical to Saudi interests, and no amount of U.S. pressure could change his mind, no matter how deep the U.S.-Saudi friendship. In short, the U.S. needed Saudi support to stabilize Iraq, but had pursued regime change in a way that repelled the Saudis. The Bush administration’s project was thus handicapped from the outset.

To be fair to the Saudis, they felt deeply betrayed by the Bush administration. The Saudis had implored them not to invade Iraq, and then were shocked when the U.S. did not only that, but did so in a way that allowed Iran to breach its regional containment. It should be no surprise that Saudi Arabia spurned U.S. pressure.

Since King Abdullah’s death in 2015, King Salman and his son Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman have finally realized that not engaging Iraq cedes the field to Iran. Ironically, the shift in their Iraq policy came as the Saudis were repeating the same error on their southern border in Yemen. Just as they had seen Maliki as a puppet of Iran, so too did the Saudis regard the Zaydi Shia Houthis of northern Yemen. The Houthis have long looked favorably on the Islamic Republic, but they received little in the way of actual assistance from Iran until, in the midst of Yemen’s post-Arab Spring civil war, they seized the Yemeni capital of Sana’a in 2015 and the Saudis responded by launching an air war against them. From that point on, the Houthis turned increasingly to Tehran, since it was the only major country that was against the Saudi war.

Prior to 2015, the Saudis alienated the Iraqis, and since 2015 they have alienated the Houthis. In both cases, Saudi policy has redounded to the benefit of Iran. The Saudis badly need to fundamentally alter how they deal with their Arab Shia neighbors — engaging with them instead of isolating them. Unfortunately, such a reappraisal seems unlikely for the foreseeable future, despite the limited progress on Iraq. The prerequisite for a true policy shift would be a fundamental reevaluation by the Saudis of their impulse to see Arab Shia groups as puppets of an inherently expansionist Iran.