Will Jubeir end a quarter-century estrangement?

Abdulrahman al-Rashed
Abdulrahman al-Rashed
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The public opinion is like a herd of sheep. It’s led and it does not lead. The rejection, anger, tension and accusations we witness today are only a result of the political mood of the moment. This applies to Iraqi-Saudi relations, which have been through several phases of tensions poisoned by regional disputes.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir surprised us yesterday when he appeared in Baghdad after abandonment lasted for a quarter of a century. It’s an important initiative amid these circumstances, which really call for reforming relations between the two countries especially that there are no significant disputes that can hamper Saudi-Iraqi relations.

Unfortunately, tension is not new but it has a history. Regardless of the slogans made during political propaganda seasons – such as Iraq is the protector of the Gulf’s eastern gate and center of stability – disputes with Baghdad are old and frequent and they have been a source of unrest and wars mostly due to problems related to domestic governance.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, the domestic battles of the Baath Party, which had seized power in Iraq, increased. The new governance led to crisis with Saudi Arabia, which had finalized reconciliation with Egyptian President Gamal Abdelnasser at the Khartoum Summit in 1967. Back then, the Baath Party launched propaganda campaigns against Saudi Arabia inciting a coup and Baghdad embraced Saudi opposition figures. Relations worsened for about 10 years and they did not improve until after Saddam Hussein decided to turn towards Iran after the Shah’s fall in the end of the 1970’s.

At the beginning of this war, Saudi Arabia was worried of any victory that Saddam Hussein may achieve because it would provide him with superiority that threatens it too. After his troops retreated and the Khomeini regime insisted on going on with the war, Riyadh had no other option but to indirectly support him.

Jubeir’s visit to Baghdad is an important diplomatic step, one with dimensions that may go beyond Iraq during this difficult time when the region needs cooperation to decrease tensions, chaos and terrorism

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

The US, which realized that extremist Iranian clerics are more dangerous than Baath figures in Baghdad, did the same. Relations remained friendly with Saddam’s regime until the war ended as Iraq once again turned towards Gulf countries and began to provoke problems with them. Iraq did not like the idea that Gulf countries had established the Gulf Cooperation Council without it and viewed this as deceit as it believed that Gulf countries exploited its preoccupation with the war with Iran to establish their own regional alliance.

This was where Iraq began to slowly approach its enemy Iran and formed an organization in response to the GCC and named it the Arab Cooperation Council, thus hinting it was directed against Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries. It then triggered two disputes. The first one was related to shares of oil production and it targeted Kuwait in particular.

Iraq triggered the second dispute by resorting to blackmail, claiming it needs more financial support. It then invaded Kuwait. Saddam was well-known for his aggressive character whether against his rivals or his own friends in the Baath Party or even against his family members. Due to his character, Saudi Arabia’s relation with Baghdad continued deterioration for 12 years after the liberation of Kuwait. Iraqi opposition figures met in Riyadh and other capitals and expected Saddam to trigger another crisis once international sanctions were lifted.

In the end, the Americans decided to get rid of his regime after economic sanctions failed to topple or contain him. The weapons of mass destruction were a mere excuse to militarily finalize the matter.

After Saddam’s downfall, the American governing council replaced him in Baghdad but this council could not reassure Riyadh which had worries and fears from the American project and thus abstained from cooperating with the US.

Iran intervened and offered to cooperate with American troops there. When Saudi Arabia refused to allow the Americans to use their military base in al-Kharj in Saudi Arabia to launch war, Qatar offered to cooperate so the Americans withdrew their troops from Kharj and built an alternative base in Qatar. The latter base became the center of their military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

On the diplomatic front, Saudi relations with the new Iraqi leaders were almost non-existent as Saudi Arabia did not want to grant legitimacy to the new regime under American military presence. At the same time, Saudi Arabia was not its rival. The situation worsened during the reign of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. When Haidar al-Abadi was elected instead, Saudi Arabia welcomed him.

However Abadi’s rivals, including Maliki and Iran, succeeded in weakening his government and he did not succeed at developing his foreign relations despite the ambassadors’ return to the country. Jubeir’s visit to Baghdad is an important diplomatic step, one with dimensions that may go beyond Iraq during this difficult time when the region needs cooperation to decrease tensions, chaos and terrorism and diminish the possibilities of opening more war fronts.

This article was first published in Asharq Al-Awsat on February 26 2017.

Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today. He tweets @aalrashed

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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