Riyadh has never hidden its dislike of Iraq’s Shia prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, but in the aftermath of the takeover of large tracts of northern and western Iraq by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis), it has stepped up criticism of the authorities in Baghdad.

Veteran Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud bin Faisal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud said ahead of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud’s meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry on 27 June, that Al-Maliki was to blame for the crisis in Iraq because he had “stirred up the sectarian fight” and encouraged militias to battle one another.

Blaming Al-Maliki

Riyadh blames the premier’s pursuit of a sectarian political agenda and his close ties to Iran for worsening the position of Iraq’s Sunni minorities. An official Saudi government statement said the crisis “would not have happened if it were not for the sectarian and exclusionary policies that were practised in Iraq in past years and which threatened its security, stability and sovereignty”.

Baghdad has hit back with criticism of what it sees as Riyadh’s role in providing succour for Islamist groups such as Isis. A government statement read “We hold [the Saudi government] responsible for supporting these groups financially and morally, and for the outcome of that, which includes crimes that may qualify as genocide: the spilling of Iraqi blood; and the destruction of Iraqi state institutions and historic and religious sites.”

The Saudis have to outsource their foreign policy as they don’t have their own people they can put on the ground

Gregory Gause, University of Vermont

Relations between the two countries had steadily worsened in the past year, mirroring the sectarian tensions inside Iraq. In late May, more than a week before Isis forces ousted Iraqi state security forces from Mosul, a senior member of the ruling Al-Saud family told MEED of the kingdom’s concerns about Al-Maliki, saying his election victory “did not seem fair”. This is all a far cry from the situation in February 2012, when Saudi Arabia named its first ambassador to Iraq in 22 years (albeit without formally reopening its embassy in Baghdad), in a sign of what many took to be a genuine thaw between the two countries. Iraq had reopened its embassy in Riyadh as far back as 2009, as it attempted to restore diplomatic ties, and still maintains a presence in the Saudi capital. 

But Saudi suspicions over Al-Maliki’s actions have thwarted these steps towards a full rapprochement, and there is now little chance of improved relations following recent events. “If there is a serious change on the ground in Iraq that leads Al-Maliki to change his spots and bring in Sunni politicians and give them real power and resources, then that could change things,” says Gregory Gause, an analyst of Gulf political affairs at the University of Vermont in the US. “But the chances of that happening are very low.”

The prospects for stronger Saudi-Iraq relations have always been circumscribed by the delicate regional balance, in which Iran is the major protagonist. Like Lebanon and Syria, Iraq is a battleground in the struggle for regional dominance between Riyadh and Tehran, says Ramzy Mardini, a non-resident fellow at the US-based Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. “Their interests converge in keeping Iraq weak and divided, but they conflict and compete for influence in Iraq’s politics, security and economy.”

Iran has distinct advantages over Saudi Arabia in that it has no outside Shia rival to compete against in Iraq, whereas Riyadh has Sunni competitors, including Turkey and Qatar.

Weakening influence

Riyadh is wielding less and less influence within Iraq’s Sunni community. The emergence of Isis does not help, and the rise to prominence of a neo-Baathist opposition in parts of the country – via the Naqshabandi army, linked to Saddam Hussein’s former adjutant Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri – is also unlikely to find favour in the kingdom. The more players that crowd the political arena, the less sway Saudi Arabia has in Iraq.

Unlike Iran, Riyadh does not have reliable proxies on the ground in Iraq that it can use to pursue its interests. Whereas Tehran can deploy General Qassem Suleimani, the powerful head of foreign operations for its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, to push its weight in Iraqi political and security circles – and use militias such as the Shia Asaib Ahl al-Haq – Saudi Arabia has no such levers to pull.

The main difference between Riyadh and Tehran, says Gause, is that the Iranians are able to conduct their own foreign policy. “They can put their own guys on the ground; they have very reliable clients such as Hezbollah [the Lebanon-based Shia militant group],” he says. “The Saudis have to outsource their foreign policy as they don’t have their own people they can put on the ground.”

As a consequence, Riyadh lacks serious traction inside Iraq. Al-Maliki’s success at sidelining influential Sunni politicians – for example his submission of an arrest warrant for the Iraqi vice-president Tariq al-Hashimi in 2011 – has helped hollow out the ranks of mainstream Sunni leaders in the capital. This has left the kingdom with few natural allies in the corridors of power in Baghdad.

Blowback risk

Although the Saudi leadership may have enjoyed a brief moment of shamata (Arabic for Schadenfreude) in witnessing the humiliation of Al-Maliki as his army collapsed under the jihadist advance in June, they know there are significant dangers that could result from this military offensive. Riyadh is aware that the caliphate declared by Isis is unlikely to remain confined to just Syria and Iraq; the map published by the organisation clearly shows its ambitious territorial aspirations. 

In this light, the Saudis’ lack of influence over Isis – despite accusations to the contrary from Al-Maliki’s office – is a real concern. Riyadh’s internal security officials fear the Iraqi premier’s problem could ultimately turn into a Saudi problem. Some 30,000 troops were moved to the Iraqi border in recent weeks amid escalating concerns.

Past experience builds little confidence in Saudi Arabia’s capacity to manage jihadism. “While I don’t doubt there are people in Riyadh who think the crisis can be used as leverage on Al-Maliki, once you start thinking like that, you start to think you know where the tipping point might be,” says Gause. “But you could be wrong.” Saudi policymakers need to prioritise the threats relating to Iraq. While Iran is viewed as a long-term geopolitical challenge, Isis and the various other shades of Salafi jihadism also constitute a direct affront to Saudi interests in the region. Finding a balance between these threats is likely to absorb the attention of senior decision makers.

“The Isis guys can bring home the threat in a way Iran never could, which means [Saudi Arabia] will have to deal with them first and worry about the Iranians later,” says Gause.

How it deals with the Sunni Iraqi opposition could mimic Riyadh’s relations with the Syrian opposition. At one time, when former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz al-Saud ran the “Syria file”, the kingdom was seen as providing overt support to Salafist groups on the ground. Now, it has thrown its lot in with the official opposition. The trouble in Iraq is that no such formal opposition exists.

Whatever happens in Iraq, Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical contest with Iran will continue. “Despite being regional arch-rivals, Iran shares one fundamental interest with Saudi Arabia: to keep post-Saddam Iraq ultimately weak, and therefore, divided,” says Mardini, who argues that national unity and reconciliation in Iraq are antithetical to both neighbours’ interests. Judging by the current situation in Iraq, with moves towards a territorial distribution of power, this seems an increasingly realistic option. It is hard to see Baghdad’s remit running to Fallujah, Mosul and Tikrit again, even if Isis’ positions are eventually rolled back.

In the event, there may be little motivation for either Riyadh or Tehran to do much about this. “The healing of socio-political divisions would undercut their sectarian spheres of influence in Iraq, while becoming the basis for a stronger and more prosperous state,” says Mardini. The latter is a particular concern for Saudi officials. Due to Iraq’s immense oil and gas reserves, its potential as an energy and economic powerhouse could undermine competitors in the region – notably the kingdom itself.

Until this year, Iraq’s slow recovery as an oil producer blunted its challenge to Saudi Arabia’s position as the world’s ‘central bank’ of oil. But by February, Iraqi crude production had broken three decades of records, hitting 3.6 million barrels a day (b/d). 

Even as Mosul fell to the insurgents, Iraq’s Oil Minister Abdulkareem al-Luaibi was telling his Opec oil minister colleagues in Vienna that the country would be raising production to 4 million b/d by the end of 2014.

Earlier this year, Iraqi leaders had begun touting their return to the full Opec production quota system. Hussain al-Shahristani, Iraq’s deputy prime minister for energy, said Opec would have to provide more room for the country’s crude.

Stifling Iraq

Saudi energy strategists may not be too perturbed by such ambitions at present, but they will be wary of moves by the Iraqis to flood the market with oil as part of a strategy to loosen the kingdom’s hold on the oil market and erode its position as swing producer. In this, at least, Riyadh may be united with Tehran. “The Saudis and Iranians don’t want Iraq’s energy resources to decrease the price of oil on the world market,” says Mardini. “They want a weak and divided Iraq, to keep it from becoming an economic and military threat.”

Iraq is still a very long way from being a genuine challenger to Saudi Arabia’s mantle as the world’s only oil superpower. Nonetheless, Riyadh will be vexed by the prospect of a growing economic engine next door laying the foundation for the redevelopment of a regional military power. The re-emergence of Baathist forces in Iraq in the past few months will invoke bitter memories of the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The fear is that a strong and united Iraq could ultimately challenge Saudi Arabia.

The good news for Riyadh is that recent events suggest this vision of a powerful and united Iraq is receding further into the distance. Al-Maliki is a long way from becoming the regional powerbroker that he might have pictured himself as after his election victory in April. And from that, his neighbours will take comfort.

In numbers

2009 The year when Iraq reopened its embassy in Riyadh, in a bid to restore diplomatic ties

2012 The year when Saudi Arabia named its first ambassador to Iraq in 22 years

Source: MEED