Public opinion, like a herd of sheep, is led and doesn’t lead. What we are witnessing today of rejections, anger and accusations is merely the result of political mood at a given time. This also applies to the Iraqi-Saudi relations which had its fair share of turbulent periods and whose disagreements had poisoned the whole region.
Saudi Foreign Ministry Adel al-Jubeir surprised us with his visit to Baghdad after a quarter of a century of abandonment. This is a very crucial initiative given the circumstances which indeed requires a reform of the two countries relations – since there aren’t any major disagreements that would make it stoop to this level.
Unfortunately, the tension is not new, and rather has a long history. Regardless of the seasonal political and commercial slogans which say Iraq is the protector of the eastern Gulf gate and center of stability, disputes with Baghdad are old and repetitive and had always been a source of tension and wars, mostly as a result of internal problems.
During the sixties and the seventies, as the Baath Party came to power, its internal difficulties increased and the regime had a new crisis with Saudi Arabia which had had a reconciliation with Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Naser during the Khartoum summit in 1967.
Back then, Baath Party launched a propaganda war calling for a coup against Saudi Arabia, during which Baghdad welcomed members of the Saudi opposition.
Relations went south for almost a decade and didn’t improve until Saddam Hussein decided to turn to Iran after Shah was toppled at the end of the 1970’s.
At the beginning of that war, Saudi Arabia was worried about any victory that Saddam Hussein might achieve and thus grant him a superiority that could threaten it as well.
Yet, after his power deteriorated and Khomeini regime’s insistence to continue with the war, Riyadh had no other solution but to support him indirectly, just like U.S. did.
The kingdom found out that extremist Iranian clerics are more dangerous and crazier than Baghdad’s Baathists.
Amicable relations remained with Saddam’s regime until the war ended as Iraq once again turned towards Gulf countries and began creating problems with them.
Saddam didn’t like the idea of the formation of GCC without him and considered it a treachery, saying they used his occupation with the war against Iran to form a regional alliance without him.
He then began to slowly form relations with his enemy, Iran. He established Arab Cooperation Council, which meant it was against Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. He then created two arguments: one about the oil production portions, precisely targeting Kuwait, with the second he resorted to extortion claiming he needed more financial support. After that, he occupied Kuwait.
Saddam was known for his aggressive personality, whether with his foes or his allies in Baath Party and even his family members. Because of his personality, Iraq had continuous bad relations with Saudi Arabia for twelve years after Kuwait’s liberation.
Iraqi opposition used to meet in Riyadh, among other Arab capitals, excepting Saddam to create a crisis as soon as the international sanctions were lifted off.
Eventually, U.S. decided to get rid of his regime after all economic sanctions failed to topple or even contain him. Weapons of mass destruction was only an excuse to settle the mattes militarily.
After Saddam’s regime, he was replaced by a U.S. ruling council in Baghdad, but it wasn’t able to assure Riyadh which was cautious of the U.S project. This is where Iran interfered proposing its cooperation with the U.S. troops there.
When Saudi Arabia didn’t permit the U.S. to use its military base in Kharej to wage war, Qatar also proposed its cooperation. They then withdrew their troops and built an alternative base in Qatar which became the center of all military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Diplomatically, the Saudi relations remained almost non-existent with the new Iraqi leadership not wanting to grant the new regime any legitimacy under U.S. military presence.
Relations worsened even more during the presidency of former PM Nouri al-Maliki. When he was replaced by Haidar al-Abadi, Saudi Arabia welcomed him but Abadi’s rivals, including Maliki and Iran, were able to undermine his government. Abadi didn’t succeed in developing the foreign relations despite return of ambassadors’ exchange.
FM Jubeir’s visit to Baghdad is an important diplomatic step at a time the whole region needs more cooperation to decrease tension, chaos, terrorism and possibly wars on different fronts.