Saudi Arabia is facing a Shia-Sunni dilemma as it hosts Muqtada al-Sadr, powerful Iraqi Shia cleric, to crush the influence of Iran.
Saudi Arabia is looking to inject some of its influence right in the heart of Iraq in order to contain Iran’s growing control over Iraq. Riyadh is looking for an antidote to solve its exhaustive Shia-Sunni dilemma, and has unprecedentedly reached out to Iraq two times in the past 30 days.
In late June, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi went on a Middle East tour, which included visits to Saudi Arabia, Iran and Kuwait. His visit to Riyadh was especially groundbreaking, as it was his first visit to Saudi Arabia since he assumed his position three years ago. Over the past weekend, the Sunni-majority Riyadh made its second, even more controversial outreach to Iraq by hosting a powerful Iraqi Shia cleric, politician and militia leader, Moqtada al-Sadr.
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Sadr’s visit to Jeddah, his first official visit to Saudi Arabia in more than a decade, is interpreted by experts as Riyadh’s attempt to confront the elephant in the room and solve its Shia-Sunni dilemma.
Saudi Arabia Turns from Thorny to Rosy to Solve Shia-Sunni Dilemma
Sadr’s rare talks with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s recently appointed crown prince, on July 30 came as Riyadh is looking to boost its influence in the terrorism-ridden Iraq, help fund reconstruction of the Sunni-majority Iraqi city of Mosul as well as shrink its regional rival Iran’s role in the neighboring country.
On Tuesday, the United Nations Iraq revealed that a total of 241 Iraqi civilians were killed in Iraq in July 2017 alone, the same month the Iraqi government officially declared victory over ISIS in Mosul, which had been captured by Islamic militants in 2014. In 2014 alone, more than 12,000 Iraq civilians were killed, according to the organization’s figures.
Although Sunni-majority Riyadh and Shia-majority Baghdad have been at odds for decades – and their differences reached the latest peak in 2014 when ex Prime Minister of Iraq Nouri al-Maliki accused Saudis of supporting terrorists with money and weapons – Saudis are now apparently ready to alter their stance from thorny to rosy towards Iraq, but only to decrease Iran’s role on the Iraqi territory.
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Sadr’s seemingly unthinkable visit to Saudi Arabia is especially prominent because he, as a firebrand, openly led militias to fight U.S. troops during America’s occupation of Iraq in 2003, and those militias were thought to be supported by Iran, Saudi Arabia’s biggest regional rival.
With the official Saudi news agency revealing that the cleric and the crown prince discussed “issues of mutual interest” during their meeting over the weekend, experts are trying to decipher what Sadr’s visit means for Shia-Sunni relations in the region.
Sadr’s relationship with Iran has had its ups and downs. While Tehran supports Shia militias in Iraq, the cleric has been a vocal critic of the Shia militias’ role in the fight against Islamic militants over the past 12 months.
Shattering Iran’s Influence: U.S. Backs Saudi and Iraq Rapprochement
Saudi Arabia seeks to bolster its influence in Iraq as a means to shatter Iran’s influence in the country. Tehran has played a major role in Iraqi social and political life ever since the U.S. invaded the nation in 2003. Iran shares close ties to Shia groups in Iraq, while Saudi Arabia is trying to solve its Shia-Sunni dilemma by decreasing Tehran’s influence in the terrorism-ridden Iraq.
The U.S. was quick to welcome Sadr’s visit to Saudi Arabia, as Washington interprets Riyadh and Baghdad putting their differences behind them as a major step forward to achieve regional stability and counter Iran’s regional assertiveness.
U.S. administrations have been making attempts to bring Saudis and Iraqis closer ever since 2003, but only in the past 30 days Riyadh actually reached out to Baghdad to satisfy its long-term interests in the region where Saudis and Iranians wrestle for leadership in the Muslim world.
Iran and Saudi Arabia Pulling the Iraqi Rope From Both Ends
The problem is that Shia militants play a vital role in the fight against ISIS in Iraq. While many political experts in the media say defeating Islamic militants in Mosul pushed Iraq further into the hands of Iran, Saudi Arabia has decided to get in the way by hosting Sadr just two weeks after the liberation of Mosul.
Mosul, which had been reduced to rubble by terrorists from 2014 to last month, needs heavy funding in order to be rebuilt. With experts estimating the cost of Mosul’s reconstruction at tens of billions of dollars, one of the world’s richest nations – Saudi Arabia – is pledging to help rebuild the destroyed city by essentially getting what it wants to resolve its Shia-Sunni dilemma.
Pulling strings in Iraq and having a complete control over the nation, whose leadership has favorable views on Iran, would be a major victory for Tehran in its long-standing confrontation against Saudis. For Iran, having Baghdad in its pocket means having a bridge that opens door for expanding its influence in the entire region.
While Saudi Arabia’s exact intentions behind its recent outreach to Iraq remain vague, it’s not a coincidence that Riyadh decided to reach out to one of few Iraqi Shia figures who have close ties with both Saudi Arabia and Iran. While many view it as Saudis’ attempts to lay out the groundwork for future talks with Tehran, others see it as the Saudi government seizing the unique opportunity to satisfy its own interests by exploiting differences within Iraq toward Iran.
What Is the ‘Shia-Sunni Dilemma’?
However, Saudi Arabia trying to ease ties with the Iraqi Shia cleric may backfire, as the Saudi government is reportedly no stranger to religious discrimination against its own Shia minorities – which comprise up to 15% of the kingdom’s over 32 million population – living on Saudi soil.
Back in 2009, the Human Rights Watch published a lengthy analysis of Shia minorities suffering from discrimination and oppression by Saudi authorities. According to the report, Saudi authorities had attempted to establish dialogues with Shia minorities in the country, but their attempts were doomed to fail because of the government’s own interests.
Since the Saudi Wahhabi interpretation of Islam portrays Shia Muslims as “unbelievers,” by trying to amend ties between Shia-Sunni, Saudi authorities risk undermining their influence in the Sunni-majority nation. It is a dilemma situation for Riyadh because by continuously discriminating Shia groups, Saudis throw them deeper into the arms of Iran.
It is an even more dangerous situation given that Shia minorities mostly live in the northeastern part of the country, where most of Saudi’s key oil and gas fields are located.