Iraqi-Arab Gulf rapprochement makes headway

Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan (R) meets with Iraqi Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr

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.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.