Rapprochement efforts by Iraq and Gulf heavyweights Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are gathering pace, with influential Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr making a surprise visit to Abu Dhabi, and Riyadh and Baghdad announcing the launch of a joint trade commission.
The Emirati news agency said Sadr was hosted by Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan on August 13. UAE officials stressed the importance of the stability and prosperity of Iraq during the talks and discussed Sadr’s aspiration for Iraq to play its natural role in the Arab arena, the news agency reported.
“Experience has taught us to always call for what brings Arabs and Muslims together and to reject the advocates of division,” Sheikh Mohammed said.
A day after Sadr’s meeting in Abu Dhabi, he met with Iraqi Sunni scholar Ahmad al-Kubaisi, who was exiled from Iraq in 1998 during the Saddam Hussein era. The two religious leaders discussed events in Iraq and stressed the importance of “Islamic and Arab unity” to combat extremism, Abu Dhabi-based the National newspaper reported.
These developments are viewed as a significant Arab breakthrough regarding Iraq while Sadr’s newfound openness to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates raised concerns in Tehran. The religious political parties in Iraq affiliated with the Islamic Republic are looking for ways to respond to Sadr’s unprecedented visits and are manoeuvring within parliament so as to block further rapprochement overtures, sources following the situation said.
The Qatar-based Al Jazeera network reported that Iraqi Interior Minister Qasim al-Araji said Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz had asked Iraq to mediate between Riyadh and Tehran. The news outlet reported Araji as saying: “Mohammed bin Salman requested me officially for Iraq’s mediation between Iran and Saudi Arabia to reduce tensions.”
Both Saudi Arabia and the Iraqi government called the report a fabrication.
Araji also denied the remarks attributed to him. On Twitter, the hashtag “Iraq denies mediation” was trending in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, with many users expressing relief over the denial.
For the first time since relations were severed in the early 1990s, Saudi Arabia and Iraq plan on reopening the Arar border crossing for trade. A joint trade commission between the two countries is also in the works. Iraqi Oil Minister Jabar Ali al-Luaibi called the moves significant steps towards cementing and developing bilateral ties between the two fraternal states, the pan-Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat reported.
The drive to improve relations began to pick up in February when Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir made a surprise visit to Baghdad, the first by a major Saudi official since 1990 when relations soured with the Iraqi invasions of fellow Gulf Cooperation Council member Kuwait.
Jubeir’s visit was followed in June with a trip to Saudi Arabia by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al- Abadi, who hailed Iraqi-Saudi rapprochement during his time in Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia had reopened its embassy in Baghdad in 2015. It had been shuttered for 25 years.
In another sign of efforts to improve relations between the two countries, Iraqi Shia cleric Ammar al-Hakim is to visit Saudi Arabia in the near future.
Mohammed Alkhereiji is the Arab Weekly’s Gulf section editor.