Friday 14 June 2024 - 03:41

What’s behind Saudi Ambassador’s Visit to Iraqi Holy Shiite Cities?

Story Code : 1141624
What’s behind Saudi Ambassador’s Visit to Iraqi Holy Shiite Cities?
Recently, the increased activism of the Saudi ambassador to Iraq Abdulaziz al-Shammari within the framework of public diplomacy and visits to religiously important provinces of Iraq and unofficial meetings with religious figures, elites, and visits to Islamic religious sites have drawn attention.

Al-Shammari went to Karbala and Najaf last month on May 13 in an surprise move, as the most important religious cities of Iraq and the places where Shia holy places are located. Analysts translated the visit as a message from Saudi Arabia about starting a new chapter in the relations between the two countries.

During this trip, the Saudi ambassador visited the sacred shrines of Imam Hussein (AS) and Imam Ali (AS) and met with religious and social figures and famous people of these two cities. In Najaf, he had separate meetings with two of the most prominent authorities in Najaf, Bashir al-Najafi and Eshagh al-Fayad. 

Message of Saudi shift of view to relations with Iraq 

The Iraqi-Saudi relationship over decades has seen huge fluctuations, especially the pessimistic view among the Shiites to the Saudi policies.

Before the fall of the Baathist regime, when the Shiites had no role in the power structure and were continuously oppressed by the dictatorship, Saudi Arabia was one of the allies and supporters of the former dictator Saddam Hussein, until 1990 and Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, which triggered Riyadh severance of diplomatic ties with Baghdad. 

After fall of the Baathist dictatorship in 2003, Saudi Arabia continued diplomatic hiatus with Iraq, and during this period, the general view among Iraqi Shiites was that the sectarian policies of the Saudis supported takfiri ideologies and terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and then ISIS was a key factor behind instability and insecurity crisis in the country.

Their tensions did not end even after the normalization of relations between the two countries and the exchange of ambassadors in 2015. The actions of the controversial Saudi ambassador in Baghdad, Thamer al-Sabhan, especially the allegations against the Public Mobilization Forces (PMF) about his assassination attempt, provoked the anger of the Iraqis. 

Still, the removal of al-Sabhan and replacing him with Al-Shammari and the visit to Baghdad of then Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubair to Baghdad in February 2017,which was the first visit of a senior Saudi official to Iraq, relieved their differences. 

Knowing Iraq well, al-Shammari unlike his predecessor tried to play as a moderate ambassador and away from interference in Iraq's home affairs. 

Pilgrimage to the holy shrines of Shiites and also meeting with religious authorities, at a time the Iraqis still remember the repeated calls of extremist Saudi muftis to destroy the holy shrines of Shiite Imams, in the views of the Iraqi public is an important and very effective step to signal change in Riyadh's approach to ethnic and religious matters in Iraq. 

A look at the feedback of the moves and visits of the Saudi ambassador in Karbala and Najaf among Iraqi politicians and analysts has confirmed the effectiveness of this action. 

In an important reaction, the official website of Imam Hussein's shrine cited the ambassador as saying that pilgrimage of Imam Hussein's shrine bears a "message of passion for all."

Saudi media sources also quoted a source close to the religious authority in Iraq as saying: "This meeting created a broad positive atmosphere and this was a step to bring the views closer to each other."

 The authority hoped that the relations between Iraq and Saudi Arabia will improve, according to the sources.

Also, Manaf Al-Mousawi, head of the Baghdad Studies Center, believes that the kingdom ambassador's frankness towards Iraqi Shiites "proves that the situation in Saudi Arabia is changing with the new policy that the crown prince [Mohammed bin Salman] has started." 

Al-Mousawi told the US government-funded Alhurra news network that in the past and before the new policy of the crown prince, there was religious conflict that sometimes led to takfir (excommunication) of the other side. 

He added that the Saudi ambassador's meetings with the Shiite religious clerics is indicative of the breaking the ice in relations of the two countries. "I'm talking about the sectarianist problem of Saudi clerics that follow a Wahabbi approach." 

In an interview with Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, the advisor to the Iraqi government Dhiya al-Naseri said that Baghdad looks at the new Saudi policy positively, adding that all trips, whether announced or undeclared, are within the framework of smoothing and creating a general atmosphere between the two countries. 

Mohammad al-Anouz, a member of parliament from Najaf told Al-Araby Al-Jadeed about the Saudi ambassador's visits to Karbala and Najaf that it was necessary for these visits to break the barrier that existed for years in relation to sectarian and political tendencies because "we have important and close Islamic and Arab ties with Saudi Arabia." 

"We believe that the recent moves of Saudi Arabia in Karbala and Najaf is important to both sides and an opportunity to expand ties," he said. 

He went on that Saudi Arabia's initiative to launch a direct flight line with Najaf will strengthen relations and the possibility of exchanging visits between the people of Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

It it is noteworthy that al-Shammari's trip to Karbala and Najaf coincided with the landing of the first commercial and pilgrimage flight from King Fahd International Airport in the Shiite-majority province of Dammam in Saudi Arabia to Najaf International Airport. 

Reports suggest that from now on, the Saudi Flynas airline will transport religious pilgrims from Dammam airport to Najaf airport with three flights a week. Before this, Saudi Shiite pilgrims had to travel to Baghdad via Kuwait or Qatar, and from there they had to take a domestic flight to Najaf. 

Economic goals 

In addition to political goals, the Saudi public diplomacy follows economic interests amid a rise of openness to the Iraqi Shiite view of the Saudi approach and foreign policy in Iraq. This pursuit of economic interests is not disconnected from the major policies of bin Salman to transform Saudi Arabia into the top economic power in the region. 

In addition to launching direct flights to Najaf that can assist boost of tourism in line with Saudi Vision 2030, the Saudi ambassador called for opening a consulate in the religious Iraqi city. An Iraqi official told Al-Araby Al-Jadeed that during Mustafa al-Kadhimi's premiership, Riyadh had made such a request, but the plan failed to materialize, but the al-Shammari's visit to Najaf seems to bear positive results in this regard. 

In this regard, the Saudi ambassador said that "the increase in flights between the two countries is within the framework of distinct bilateral relations and to facilitate the direct travel of Saudi citizens to the Republic of Iraq and that the relations between the two countries are at their best... Saudi Arabia and Iraq seek joint economic, political and religious integration." 

Commenting on the discussions with local authorities in Najaf and Karbala, al-Shammari held that he reached an agreement with governor of Karbala to launch joint projects to create new job opportunities for the Iraqi youths and products for Iraqi markets. The projects will be announced soon, he added. 

Saudi media in their analysis of the al-Shammari's visits said that in addition to political messages, he is seeking economic goals that help boost public, religious, cultural, and tourist relations with Iraq and push them to broader cooperation in the future. 

Unde bin Salman, Saudi Arabia holds lofty ambitions in order to cut its dependence on oil through advancing fast progress plans. 

For this purpose, the Saudis know very well that they should look for markets for their export goods in the future. Accordingly, Iraq is one of the most attractive export markets in the region, most of which is in the hands of regional competitors such as Iran, Turkey, and to some extent the UAE. In 2020, the two countries agreed to reopen the Arar crossing after decades and prepare the land route for passenger and goods transit.

Though their trade is not that big and in 2022 reached $1.5 billion, the pace of its growth is considerable, showing 50-percent growth in 2021. The continuous holding of meetings of the Saudi-Iraq Coordination Council in recent years confirms the determination of both sides to boost ties. 

Hidden goals 

Many of the policy and diplomacy goals are not revealed by the foreign policy, rather they are kept hidden. This is obvious in recent moves of Saudi ambassador and, in general, the Saudi policy of closeness to Iraq. 

Geopolitically, Iraq is considered a very important country in the region with a decisive weight in the competition and balance of regional forces, and its developments have serious effects on the security and stability of the region. 

Since 2003 and with power gain of the Shiites in the governance structure of Iraq due to their majority, a significant shift occurred to the regional and international coalitions, with the most determining of them being the emergence of strategic Iranian-Iraqi alliance and change of Iraq into part of the Axis of Resistance, a regional bloc seeking independence of regional countries and opposing Western imperialism and Israeli occupation of Palestine. 

Like other nations, Iraq over the past years has experienced political, economic and social dynamism, and economic challenges, corruption, party monopolism, public services crisis, and unemployment have transformed the landscape of its developments. Since the protests of 2019, no government has been able to live a full four-year term, and the emergence of inter-Shiite division following the confrontation between the Sadrist Movement and other Shiite factions is a side effect of the demonstrations. 

It seems that these developments have led the Saudis to the conclusion that the confrontational policies regarding the Shiites of Iraq have been one of the reasons for them to rely on Tehran as the only strategic ally, and for this reason, review of this policy and boosting relations with the Shiites regardless of their faith with an emphasis on the element of Arab identity and nationalism can reduce the reliance of Shiites on Tehran. For example, the ambassador highlighted the "blood bonds, Arab identity and history" between the two countries in a meeting with the prominent people and tribal leaders in Najaf. 

This approach is not new, and under Donald Trump and amid anti-Iranian "maximum pressure" campaign the White House tried to meet Iraqi needs for Iran especially in power in association with Persian Gulf Arab states and cut Iraq's economic dependence on Iran. This approach was followed in recent years and months in Syria, though it showed it is unrealistic and Syria's return to the Arab League and promises of economic privilege to Damascus has failed to impact Tehran-Damascus relations. Still, Riyadh insists on repeating this failed scenario in Iraq.