Remarkably Saudi Arabia received Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, last week in a welcome show that included an air force show and a military parade with the artillery firing 21 shots, a rare salute.
Kadhimi’s first visit to Riyadh since he took office, followed by a visit to the UAE, promises new horizons of rapprochement between Iraq and other Arab countries.
The prime minister, walking a diplomatic tightrope in terms of relations between Tehran and Riyadh, has been keen to maintain close relations with Saudi Arabia and its ally Washington.
Meanwhile, Kadhimi is already facing pressure from pro-Iranian blocs in parliament to end US presence in the country; otherwise, his position may be undermined. The Iranian request isn’t applicable amid government fears of a strong resurgence of the Islamic State.
Iran’s threat regarding Kadhimi’s position isn’t surprising since it has been difficult for any Iraqi prime minister to challenge the Shiite militias’ dominance over the country’s security apparatus or allies of Iran in the Iraqi parliament.
However, it seems that the Iraqi government is taking steady steps towards opening up to Arab countries, showing new levels of independence from Iran. The main demand of the Iraqi protests of 2019, which led to the resignation of the former premier, was to reduce Iran’s deeply entrenched influence in the country. Baghdad is also working on the reinforcement of broader Arab ties, as cooperation between Iraq, Egypt and Jordan is taking place under the slogan of “New Mashreq”.
Baghdad’s shift towards the Arab region, seeming to stir Iran’s hornet’s nest, reflects the fact that Tehran has gradually lost its footing in Iraq since the killing of its General Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force there. Its popularity has also been on the wane since 2019 protests.
“The visits of the Iraqi prime minister to Saudi Arabia and the UAE reflect important political transformations taking place in Iraq and are a part of the Iraqi government’s efforts to resolve the regional balance in Iraq, which has witnessed a clear Iranian presence at the expense of the Arab and Gulf roles,” said Firas Elias, an expert in national security and Iranian studies at the Washington Institute.
“Kadhimi will try to establish a new era of relations with the Arab world, a trend reinforced by the Gulf reconciliation between Qatar and Saudi Arabia,” Elias told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Saudi Arabia has been working on enhancing ties with Iraq since the restoration of diplomatic relations in 2015, planning a release from long-time isolation caused by political crisis since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. “Arab responses show that a new Arab-Gulf vision is beginning to crystallise inside Iraq,” Elias added.
On the other hand, Riyadh also recognises the importance of a closer alliance with Iraq, as it is the northern gateway which lies in a sensitive geographical location between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Abbas Kadhim, the director of the Iraq Initiative at the Atlantic Council, believes that if the relations between the Arab countries and Iraq are only based on the issue of the conflict with Iran, “this could probably lead to a dead-end”.
“Some countries in the Gulf are conducting relations with Iraq in the right way and they have accomplished a lot, like Kuwait and Oman. Other countries see the relations only as a step towards giving them an upper hand in their Iranian conflict, like Saudi Arabia,” Kadhim told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Concerning Iraq’s new alliances in the region implied by Kadhimi’s visit, Kadhim told Al-Ahram Weekly that Iraq’s foreign and regional policy depends on maintaining “balanced and strong relations with all our neighbours,” as a first element.
He also mentioned that the second element characterising Iraqi foreign policy is that it “refuses to be part of any camp but wants to be neutral or positively neutral to help in resolution and conflict management, but it’s not interested in being with one camp against another regionally or internationally.
“Iraq’s state visits of Kadhimi or previous prime ministers lie in the parameter of this policy,” Kadhim added.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly