Saudi Arabia’s New Approach in Iraq


Saudi Arabia appears to be pursuing a policy of pragmatic diplomacy with Iraq by aiming to build ties across the sectarian landscape. After more than 25 years of disengagement from Baghdad, Riyadh is now attempting to repair relations in order to build greater influence and counter Iran’s presence. Saudi Arabia’s regional strategy emphasizes curbing Iran’s influence, and it has recently embraced a series of bold foreign policy moves with Yemen, Qatar, and Lebanon. By contrast, the strategy in Iraq is largely consonant with the approach of gradual cooptation that Saudi Arabia has often adopted in the past.

Saudi Arabia has a number of political and economic tools to use in Iraq. Politically, it has sought to limit the influence of pro-Iranian groups by exploiting a growing intra-Shi`a rift, as many Shi`ite leaders and citizens are growing weary of Tehran’s overreach. Economically, it seeks to strengthen integration and build interdependencies with Baghdad, as well as benefit from the potential export market and trade that has been dominated by Iran and Turkey. 

While headlines focus on Sunni-Shi`a tensions in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is seeking accommodation with a Shi`a-led government in Iraq in order to push back against Iran. The opportunities that Baghdad presents to Riyadh could be mutually beneficial, but from the perspective of many Iraqis, Saudi Arabia’s eagerness to weaken Iran is insufficient to make them an ally. Saudis must also prove that they are a reliable partner in other arenas, especially in the economic realm. Ultimately, Riyadh will have to tread carefully in its attempt to build trust. If it cannot manage to do so, Renad Mansour argues, it risks becoming yet another external power that fails to re-build the postSaddam Iraqi state.