Riyadh and Baghdad: Getting relations back on track

Dr. Ibrahim Al-Othaimin

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The recent visit of Adel Al-Jubeir to Baghdad was the first by a Saudi foreign minister in 14 years. It came after a period of estrangement between the two states and was an attempt to get relations back on track.

After the 25-year closure of its embassy as a consequence of the Gulf War in 1991, Saudi Arabia appointed an ambassador and reopened the embassy in Iraq in December 2015. This reopening was seen by many observers as an indicator of coordination and cooperation between the two states in the fight against ISIS.

However, the relationship was overwhelmed by tension over the Iranian role and the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in Iraq, leading to the withdrawal of the Saudi ambassador from Baghdad, and the reduction of diplomatic representation to chargé d’affaires level in October 2016. Nevertheless, the Saudi foreign minister’s visit is a positive sign that may result in a new breakthrough in relations between the two major states that have many interests in common.

I think the visit will have an impact on resolving many issues, the most important of which is the restoration of political stability to Iraq. There is a strong correlation between political instability and terrorist attacks; any increase in a state’s political instability leads to an increase in its internal conflict, and consequently an increase in terrorist attacks, which is evident in Iraq.

Since the US invasion in 2003, Iraq has suffered from political instability, putting it first on the Global Terrorism Index (GTI). According to the GTI of 2012-2015 issued by the Institute for Economics and Peace, based in the USA and Australia, six Arab countries, including Iraq, which has headed the list for the last three years, top the index. According to the 2016 GTI, Iraq had 10,000 fatalities associated with terrorism, which is the highest recorded number in a single state.

Thus, any lack or weakness of stability in an environment makes it a point of attraction where terrorists assemble in order to be redirected to other areas of conflict. This was the case in Iraq and countries of the so-called Arab Spring including Libya, Syria, Yemen, Egypt and Tunisia.

Riyadh and Baghdad could work on the enhancement of business opportunities by opening the strategic border crossing of Jemima, which would revive links between Saudi Arabia’s north and west of Iraq

Dr. Ibrahim Al-Othaimin

Political and economic weight

Saudi Arabia, together with the neighboring Gulf states, could use their political and economic weight to support the Iraqi government and its political and security institutions in order to restore stability and internal harmony.

Moreover, GTI reports indicate that ISIS is the most dangerous terrorist organization in the Gulf region, as 88 percent of its terrorist attacks have targeted Saudi Arabia. Reports also indicate that four terrorist organizations that are fronted by ISIS have been responsible for two-thirds of terrorist attacks during the past few years. ISIS has made Iraq its headquarters and the base from which it runs its operations.

Therefore, there is a genuine interest in security coordination and cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Iraq, through border controls, to abort any terrorist operations including recruitment, smuggling and training in arms and explosives, carried out by ISIS or any other terrorist organization in Iraq.

The visit of the Saudi foreign minister to Iraq could also have a positive impact on economic relations and investment opportunities as trade between the two states remains low. During the past 10 years, the volume of trade exchange was between $2-3 billion.

Riyadh and Baghdad could work on the enhancement of business opportunities by opening the strategic border crossing of Jemima, which would undoubtedly revive links between the north of Saudi Arabia and the west of Iraq. Direct flights between the two states would also create many business opportunities.

Finally, as the origin of Arabism, civilization and history, Iraq’s return is inevitable, and the people of the Gulf states look forward to seeing Iraq as a pillar of the Arab world once again.

This article was first published in the Saudi Gazette on April 20, 2017.
Dr. Ibrahim Al-Othaimin is a Middle East affairs specialist and security analyst based in Riyadh. He can be contacted at Ibrahim.othaimin@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @Alothaimin.

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