Ever since the United States toppled Saddam Hussein, Arab governments have kept their distance from Baghdad. As the United States, Iran and Turkey all jockeyed for influence in Iraq’s nascent democratic system, Arab states remained wary of being associated with the unpopular U.S. occupation and the new Shia-dominated presence in the region. Today, Saudi Arabia is making an effort to reengage with the Iraqi political elite.
Although the past few weeks have brought signals of a possible alliance between Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition, the Shia Iraqi National Alliance and the Kurds, the country’s political players all agree on the importance of proportional Sunni representation in the next government. The prospect of an Iraqi parliament that promises more equitable Sunni representation encouraged the Saudis to come around after the March elections. For the Saudis, Iraqi voter turnout in March was a positive sign that the Sunnis are leaving behind the business of resistance, protest and boycotts and are prepared to work within the new system. Sunnis participated in great numbers, making them more likely to have a substantial role in shaping the country after the U.S. withdrawal in 2011. More importantly, Riyadh now recognizes that it needs strong relations with Iraq’s political elites to ensure that the next government in Baghdad is inclusive and capable of resolving the various ethnic and sectarian conflicts.
Saudi Arabia has become keen on engaging representatives of the major ethnic and religious groups in the country as the negotiations unfold. In mid-April, Saudi King Abdullah met some of Iraq’s most significant politicians in Riyadh. Kurdish Regional Government President Massoud Barzani, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) head Ammar al-Hakim, a convoy of Sadrists, as well as Vice Presidents Tariq al-Hashimi of former–Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's coalition have all held meetings with Abdullah on their visions for the upcoming Iraqi government and the prospect of strengthening ties with the Kingdom. This cautious reengagement signals that Riyadh has come to terms with political implications of Iraq’s multiconfessional makeup. The Saudis may have also found it constructive to take on a wider role as Washington’s influence wanes and Iran continues to flex its muscles.
As Maliki has turned more dramatically against the United States as well as Iraq’s Arab neighbors, such as Syria and Saudi Arabia, in recent months—supporting a highly controversial and draconian de-Baathification policy and openly criticizing King Abdullah—he initially reinforced Arab views that it was not yet time to engage Baghdad. This was marked by a Saudi freeze of cooperation with Maliki's government, most clearly displayed when Maliki requested to visit the Kingdom and was subsequently rebuffed and denied the visit. Yet as Iranian influence in Iraq solidifies, and it become evident that Washington cannot counter it, the Saudis and other Arab states have come to see an opening and a need for their involvement there.
After the announcement of the election results in March, high-level representatives of ISCI, the Sadrists, the Kurds and Maliki’s alliance traveled first to Tehran for talks. Allawi was initially not invited, but after he complained about the slight, the Iranians met on April 15 with his representatives in Tehran. King Abdullah has shown that the Saudis can play Iran’s game, too, and he has seen to it that Iraqi leaders come to meet him in Riyadh. Yet, he extended no invitation to the current Iraqi prime minister, which seems to signal that a second Maliki term could put the measured improvement of relations between the two countries at risk.
It is no secret that the Saudis, along with most Arab and Western governments and Turkey, would prefer to see Allawi in charge of the next Iraqi government. Though Allawi is a secular Shia, his Iraqiya coalition made a strong showing among Sunnis in the March elections, winning 91 of 325 seats, and showed the rest of Iraq and the Arab world that the Sunnis are ready to play their part in the future of the country. Allawi has also made it a priority to restore ties with the cagey Arab states, and he and his coalition partners have visited several of them in the past six months. Arab states appreciate that Allawi’s Iraqiya coalition would endeavor to reincorporate Sunnis into Iraq’s political fabric. The Saudis now seem to be reciprocating to Allawi’s overtures by weighing in on the postelection process.
Throughout this timid opening, Saudi Arabia has been careful to stand at an equal distance from all parties and to support the formation of a unity government. The Saudis recognize that they must not appear exclusively in support of Allawi. Rather than insisting that Allawi be chosen, King Abdullah seems to have expressed his hope to the representatives of Iraq’s Kurds and Shia that the Iraqiya coalition be well represented in the next government, and that the next prime minister be willing and able to create an inclusive regime, keep Iraq stable and work toward integrating the country into the Gulf.
King Abdullah surely recognizes that several of Iraq’s key players have issues with an Allawi premiership and that it would be counterproductive to push too hard for it at this point. They must assure their Iraqi counterparts that their involvement is not motivated solely by the desire to counter Iran’s influence or undercut Tehran’s relations with leaders in Baghdad, but rather that they now see a ripe moment and are prepared to assist Iraq in taking the next step forward.
As a de facto leader of the Arab world, King Abdullah has significant clout. If and when he confers his blessing on the next Iraqi government, he will encourage other Arab leaders to strengthen their relations with Baghdad. Abdullah’s initiative—and Iraqiya’s push to present itself as the harbinger of improved ties with the Arab world—has already spurred quiet movement around the Arab world vis-à-vis Iraq’s political process, including a visit by Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa to Iraq and a joint Saudi-Bahraini statement in support of a unified Iraqi voice. In addition, at Vice President Hashimi’s behest, Kuwait’s ruler Sheik Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah recently ordered the release of all remaining Iraqi prisoners from Kuwaiti jails.
Though the Saudis may not hold the oft-whispered “Iranian veto” over who becomes Iraq’s next prime minister, for the moment, Riyadh’s engagement is a step in the right direction.
Danial Anas Kaysi is the Middle East program's current junior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.