Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, better known to the US public for his threat last April 2016 to sell US Treasuries should the US press with a probe of Saudi involvement in the Sept 11 attacks, made a rare visit to Baghdad over the weekend in an attempt to mend the kingdom’s tense relations with Iraq. al-Jubeir’s surprise trip on Saturday marked the first official visit by a Saudi foreign minister since 1990, and the first high-level visit since the 2003 US-led invasion.
“It’s the hope of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to build excellent relations between the two brotherly countries,” said Jubeir. “There are also many shared interests, from fighting extremism and terrorism [to] opportunities for investment and trade between the two countries.”
Jubeir, who met his Iraqi counterpart Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, also announced Saudi plans to appoint a new ambassador to Iraq. An Iraqi foreign ministry official said the kingdom supported the resumption of direct flights between the two countries. Abadi, who has been in power since 2014, has supported efforts to improve strained ties, but the road to normalization has been rocky.
— Brett McGurk (@brett_mcgurk) February 25, 2017
The visit follows a recent diplomatic spat between the two nations, when Thamer al-Sabhan, Saudi Arabia’s previous ambassador to Iraq, was removed in August. Sabhan’s comments about Iran’s involvement in Iraqi affairs and the alleged persecution of Sunni Muslims had angered Iraq’s local Shia politicians and militia leaders. Sabhan had also called on Iraq to exclude Shia paramilitary groups from its military campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), in order to avoid abuses against Sunnis in the country.
Sabhan was the first ambassador appointed by Saudi Arabia after it reopened its embassy in Baghdad in 2015, following a 25-year break.
Saudi has long accused Iraq of being too close to Iran, its main regional rival, and of encouraging sectarian discrimination against the Sunnis, a charge the Shia-led government in Baghdad denies. Previously, Jubeir himself accused the Hashd al-Shaabi militia, a main partner of the Iraqi army in its fight against ISIL, of being a proxy force for Iran, prompting Baghdad to accuse him of meddling in Iraqi affairs.
Since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s government in 2003, Iran has advanced its influence in Iraq, which has further strained relations with Saudi Arabia. Iran has helped Iraq in the fight against ISIL, while supporting the powerful Shia militias in the country. In turn, Iraq has often suffered from being turned into a battlefield where the rivalry of its neighbours are played out.
Ali Khedery, the former special assistant to five US ambassadors to Iraq, told Al Jazeera that Iran was likely to be suspicious of Jubeir’s visit. “[Iran] will possibly move to guard the gains they consolidated in [Iraq], which might lead to outbursts of additional violence that target Arab Gulf states’ interests in the country,” Khedery said.
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But the biggest highlight of the meeting was the proposal by Saudi Arabia to “discuss cooperation” in the fight against ISIL.
Jubeir expressed his country’s support for an ongoing US-backed Iraqi campaign aimed at dislodging the group from Iraq, according to Abadi’s official statement. A day earlier, Iraqi forces punched through the defences of the last ISIL stronghold in Mosul. Defeating ISIL in Mosul would roll back the self-styled caliphate it declared in Iraq and Syria in 2014 after seizing large parts of both countries. About 100,000 Iraqi soldiers, security forces, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, and mainly Shia paramilitary forces are participating in the Mosul campaign that began on October 17.
It wasn’t just cooperating with Iraq to “eradicated” ISIS, but also the US. As quoted by the Saudi Embassy in the US, al-Jubeir said the following:
“The Kingdom and other Gulf nations have expressed that they are ready, in cooperation with the United States, to send special forces. Even other nations that are part of the Islamic Coalition against Terrorism and Extremism are ready to send troops. We are cooperating with the United States to see what the plan is and what is necessary to take action.”
— Saudi Embassy (@SaudiEmbassyUSA) February 27, 2017
The reason why this statement is particularly notable, not to mention amusing, is that according to an email released as part of the Podesta leaks, none other than Hillary Clinton admitted that Qatar and Saudi Arabia “are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region.“
— Saudi Embassy (@SaudiEmbassyUSA) February 24, 2017
In other words, having spent billions on funding ISIS, Saudi Arabia – sensing the tide of war changing adversely for the Islamic State – is now willing to make a complete 180, and fight the very organization it had helped conceive and fund. As to the ulterior motive behind this “generous” proposal, perhaps another tweet by the Saudi embassy will explain it: such a military pivot could provide Saudi Arabia with the means to eventually engage its key nemesis in the region: Iran.
Foreign Policy Experts: United States identifies Houthis as “a terrorist proxy” pic.twitter.com/7qG1rhpKZs
— Saudi Embassy (@SaudiEmbassyUSA) February 27, 2017
We eagerly look forward to the response from Trump’s administration to this generous proposal.