A recent meeting between Saudi Arabia’s new crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman and Iraqi Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr has sparked a fresh reproach to relations between the countries.
For a long time, Iraq’s majority Shia inhabitants were not on the best terms with their Saudi neighbors. Sectarian tension and the ongoing conflict in the region made relations rigid during Iraq’s post-Saddam era, and it seemed as if with Iraq’s majority Shia population juxtaposing a Sunni Saudi Arabia, future affairs between both nations would continue to be apprehensive. But a meeting between Iraq’s Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and Saudi crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman on July 30th invalidated that notion, as it seems both countries are heading towards a closer and more amicable relationship.
A closer relationship between the two has indeed been growing in recent years, exemplified by ongoing meetings between public officials, including a 2017 visit by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abbadi. But what makes this recent visit more significant than the ones that came before it is the fact that al-Sadr is not himself an Iraqi official. Instead, he is a Shia cleric that holds significant political sway in the form of his Islamist nationalist “al-Sadr movement”, as well as his leadership of a prominent Shia militia group by the name of Saraya al-Salam (translated literally as Peace Companies). His reputation and following in Iraq has made him a significant figure in the country’s political arena and it comes as no surprise that the leader would find himself meeting with another nation’s dignitaries. In fact, Al-Sadr previously visited Saudi Arabia in 2006, albeit with less of an impact following his trip. Following the trip, Sadr has returned to Iraq intent on making a few new changes that will no doubt strengthen relations between Iraq’s Shia community and Saudi Arabia.
Al-Sadr after the meeting
When Muqtada came back to Iraq, one of the first things he did was call for the end of all Iranian backed Shia militias. Sadr spoke against the Hashed al-Shabbi, an organization that boasts 12,000 troops and is made up of militias backed up by Iran. Although this decision may stem from a want to hinder Iran from having an overwhelming influence on Iraq’s domestic affairs, the timing of the announcement was too coincidental to be independent of the Saudi Arabia visit. Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi later rejected the proposal and its call to merge groups with the army, but the gesture behind the announcement is enough to warrant approval from Riyadh. Furthermore, in an explicit move to gain favor with the country, Sadr gave an order to remove all anti-Saudi material in Iraqi streets, including any images, posters, or banners with an anti-Saudi sentiment. This obvious move to gain favorability from Saudi Arabia signals a changing relationship between the neighbors. It seems that Sadr sides with Saudi Arabia in the regional cold war between the kingdom and Iran, and is more than willing to exert the influence he has to fortify relations between Baghdad (or rather Najaf) and Riyadh. Nevertheless, his will, Sadr’s meeting with Saudi Arabia and the subsequent measures he has taken since the visit marks a new and perhaps prosperous relationship between Shia Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia, a country that seems to be evolving under its new crown prince, may indeed see itself in a gainful position if Iraq’s Shiites choose to embrace the country, and perhaps Sadr himself will gain from a stronger relationship with the desert kingdom. What is known in the present is that the two are growing closer and closer, and Iran must watch out for this new era of Iraqi- Saudi relations.