Though foreign missions in the Iraqi capital face the danger of attack, the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs has decided to send a technical team to choose a new location for its embassy in Iraq, which closed its doors 24 years ago. The visit aims to break the ice in a relationship that has been frosty for the past 10 years. Saudi Arabia has also decided to open a consulate in the Kurdistan region, finally implementing a decision which had previously been delayed due to political and security tensions.
Though relations were never severed completely, there has been no Saudi embassy and no Saudi ambassador in Baghdad in recent years. An embassy sends a message and the diplomatic team based in it has a mission to carry it out. This includes fixing what has been damaged during the many decades under various Iraqi governments. Bilateral relations were bad in the 1970s, especially with the rise of Saddam Hussein to the post of vice president, as he incited Iraqis against Saudi Arabia, supported opposition groups, and funded secret operations inside the Kingdom. This did not end until after a meeting organized by Jordan. The meeting resulted in a number of agreements which included specifying a neutral zone and putting an end to hostilities.
It wasn’t long until Saddam Hussein attacked Iran, exploiting the fall of the Shah, who was his military nemesis. Saddam launched the attack to reclaim what he called occupied Iraqi lands. Recklessly, he led the Gulf countries—who feared for their security should the Iraqi defenses collapse—to enter the fray in support of Iraq, especially as Khomeini’s regime threatened them with invasion. After the war with Iran ended, relations with Iraq soured when Saddam invaded Kuwait, and it should be noted that the war to liberate Kuwait triggered a number of crises and continuous wars that have lasted until this very day. Actually, Iraq and the Gulf have lived through 34 years of tension since the 1980s and the region remains unstable.
I have written before on the topic of Saudi–Iraqi relations, and the relationship between the two is certainly capable of either leading the region towards security or dragging it toward further turbulence. It all depends on the politicians’ ability to manage complicated crises between the two countries. There are some issues which both agree on but there are other issues which the two parties may butt heads over. The war on terrorism, such as that against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda, is not controversial as both extremist groups clearly target both countries. Riyadh believes it is the Iraqi government’s duty not to blur the line between terrorist groups and Sunnis who are angry at being marginalized and are disillusioned with the deteriorating living conditions and humanitarian situation in five of Iraq’s provinces. Riyadh also thinks that the previous government’s militarized approach to public protests sparked the current crisis and strengthened ISIS, leading it to take over Mosul. It was the day after terrorists took over Mosul that Saudi Arabia issued a statement against ISIS and reinforced its northern borders, realizing that these terrorist organizations don’t just threaten Iraq but also threaten Saudi territory.
A cause for concern for Saudi Arabia is the Iranian infiltration of Iraq and Iran’s attempt to subjugate Iraq to its influence under the excuse of fighting terrorism. Riyadh cannot do anything about this. However, the Iraqi leadership must accept its responsibility to confront the reality of this and maintain Iraqi sovereignty and reject Iranian interference, which will be difficult for the Iraqis to curb in the future. Iraq is not a small or poor country and should not need a foreign power to protect it and guarantee its internal security.
Ensuring positive relations with all its neighbors, including the Saudis, will serve the interests of Baghdad, whose government still has a long way to go in terms of achieving internal reconciliation. The government also still has a way to go in achieving positive relations with the Kurdistan region, and in getting rid of the legacy of the harmful governments of Saddam Hussein and Nuri Al-Maliki.