While we await what the era of the Trump presidency will bring for the Middle East, local actors are not wasting time and trying to create their own realities. For Saudi Arabia, the setback faced in Syria (now ever more firmly in an Iranian-Russian sphere of influence) means a refocus on Iraq - arguably more important in its regional rivalry with Iran than a ravaged Syria. In the piece below, a writer for the Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar (generally pro-Hizbollah, anti-imperalist, anti-Saudi and pro-Iran) argues that this shift underscores a new Saudi strategy based of reviving Arab nationalism to replace the Sunni-Shia sectaranism (or, as a new book argues, sectarianization) that is so often condemned and linked with jihadist extremism.
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Saudi Arabia’s Enticements: “Arabism” vs. the Resistance
Khalil Kawtharani, al-Akhbar (Lebanon), 9 February 2017
Now that the plan to sow Sunni-Shia strife has failed and the weakness of the forces that Washington and Riyadh relied upon has become evident, and now that ISIS’ regional influence has declined sharply as the world has moved decisively against takfiri extremism, it seems that the new plan is in need of a different polarizing element — one based on focusing solely on Iran and portraying its regional allies as mere client actors. This means that the confrontation needs new labels, and Saudi Arabia could find no better banner to raise than “Arabism against Persianism,” which opens a path for the country to work among Shia and allows it to hope for political breakthroughs that had been impossible when it raised the banner of opposing the expansion of Shia influence.
About a year ago, Saudi Arabia returned to Iraq in formal garb. With the opening of its embassy in Baghdad, Riyadh ended a two decade-long era in which its presence there had been restricted to security channels.
However, the evolution represented by this diplomatic opening toward its northern neighbor — which followed the removal of Saudi Arabia’s arch-rival there, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — soon revealed that the kingdom’s intentions toward Iraq had not changed, intentions which Iraqis say have been characterized by negativity all along. It did not take long until the whole spectrum of Baghdad’s ruling coalition converged upon the need for the new ambassador to be withdrawn, accusing him of overstepping his diplomatic role and issuing statements which went beyond that which everyone considered acceptable, including those advocating for engagement with the kingdom. Ambassador Thamer al-Sabhan — who had a security background — was removed, leaving the embassy to the chargé d’affaires, Abdulaziz al-Shammari, who is still managing the embassy because Saudi Arabia has not yet appointed a successor to Sabhan.
Sabhan was recently appointed Minister of State for Arabian Gulf Affairs, and he now seems to be a minister for practically everything save that which his title refers to. These days he monitors multiple regional issues (including Lebanon), none of which are related to the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council. This can be explained by Riyadh’s insistence that he play his previous role (that of restructuring the “Sunni street”) with the matter no longer limited to Iraq.
Amid all these changes, one thing is still guaranteed: Saudi Arabia does not want the clock to be turned back with its northern neighbor, and it wants to leverage the divided Iraqi home front to achieve a breakthrough and prevent its Iranian adversary from gaining a complete hold over Iraqi decision-making. For all this, the Saudis believe it was still within their abilities to reserve a seat in the lineup of influential players in formulating the “new Iraq,” or, “post-ISIS Iraq.”
“Arabism” instead of “sectarianism”?
This being said, decision-makers in the palaces of Jeddah and Riyadh have become fully convinced of the need to change the region’s modus operandi in general and in Iraq in particular, given that it is such an important regional testing ground. The new approach, established silently, can be summed up in the idea of leveraging the nationalist rhetoric of Arabism as an alternative to a sectarian and religious discourse focused on the necessity of “defending the Sunni people against Safavid expansion.” The “expansion” Saudi Arabia wants to stand against will now be primarily “Persian,” after having previously been portrayed largely as “Magian Safavid.” Two factors have brought the Saudis to the aforementioned conclusion: First, the sectarian card is now played out after the spread of the terrorism phenomenon and after receiving international messages that this issue will soon wind down. Second, it now senses the need to attract a larger segment of Shias in Iraq, which there is no way to do through its previous sectarian discourse.
For some time, Saudis working on the Iraqi issue have been trying to prepare an expanded lineup including Iraqi figures with a nationalist background or who are inclined toward the rhetoric of Arabism. What they are seeking is to attract a larger spectrum of these figures, open up to them, and open permanent channels of communication with them — especially Shias and those who view Iranian policies in the region with suspicion. Indeed, the Saudi embassies in both Baghdad and Beirut have already seen a series of meetings with a number of Iraqi figures, some of whom have not been known to have previous ties to Saudi policy in Iraq. All of this has been conducted under the notable supervision of Thamer al-Sabhan. In his latest two visits to Beirut, he has spoken clearly and explicitly with those he met about the kingdom’s new approach in Iraq. Perhaps the Saudis chose Beirut to hold a portion of these meetings as a way of operating away from the embarrassment that could be caused by holding similar meetings in the Baghdad embassy.
“Free market” at the Iraqi borders
In this context, arrangements are underway to establish a free trade zone in the Saudi city of Arar, which is near the Iraqi border. Riyadh expects this project will provide cover for more dynamic action with various collaborators inside Iraq, far away from the security and logistical complications in Baghdad. The new market is to be a camouflaged platform for the new Saudi operations, which will require broader and more comprehensive action than was previously exerted. This project was preceded by Saudi activity in this area, however it had been at a different level. The volume of Saudi communication with the sheikhs of clans and tribes in Iraq’s southernmost area — which overlap with Saudi Arabia geographically — has become notable. Indeed, the Saudis have succeeded in winning the friendship of some of the sheikhs of the tribes present inside Iraqi territory.
This has intersected with the appearance, a few days ago, of a number of Iraqi guests at the Al-Jenadriyah festival held annually in the kingdom. Saudi Arabia is keen to invite new names to the festival, and those in the know say the guest list is not selected arbitrarily. Additionally, other conferences have been arranged by Saudi circles, outside of the spotlight, to discuss “Iraqi national issues,” the means of confronting “Persian ambitions,” and how to present a new discourse in the media.
Upcoming parliamentary elections
How does Riyadh translate its new approach into tangible progress? Decision-makers in the kingdom believe that entry into the Iraqi arena involves passing through the gates of elections — the sole matter that ensures continued Saudi efforts to network inside decision-making circles in Baghdad. This can explain the Saudi focus on expanding extensive contacts with Iraqi movements and figures: for Riyadh, the matter is no more than a preliminary to leveraging the parliamentary elections.
However, these Saudi initiatives still face one obstacle – the electoral law, which controls who the potential winners will be in any electoral round. Because Riyadh suffers from having cut communication links with most political parties active in Baghdad, there is nothing left for it but to resort to finding counterbalancing independent figures and working to prop them up to benefit from them. There is no other way to achieve this aim than an electoral law that involves independent candidate electoral districts and a first-past-the-post system. If the system is approved, Riyadh hopes it will result in about 200 lawmakers in the new parliament who either affiliated with it or at least not suspected of being pro-Tehran, once the power of the political parties is broken — an issue which the political and religious authorities in Iraq have begun to pay attention to. Despite the calls to adopt a system of single-member districts — which some hope would inject new blood into ruling circles — the proposal will likely be withdrawn from discussion in the coming days.
Over the past two weeks, Riyadh has felt more comfortable in its operations in Iraq since the installation of the new American administration. In the statements of Donald Trump, the Saudis sense a wider margin for their activity in Baghdad, especially since the new president complains about Iran’s role in Iraq at every opportunity. The new era of Saudi-American convergence was confirmed with a question posed by an American official a few days ago to an Iraqi official about the possibility that Baghdad would abandon Washington for the sake of “others” after “all it had done to assist them in the war on terror” — a reference to the fear that Iraq will continue to draw closer to Tehran. Under the previous administration, Saudi rulers pleaded with former Vice President Joe Biden to strike Iran, only to find that their pleas fell on deaf ears. Now they finally sense that those days are gone forever, and a new age has begun.