Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister, Adel Al-Jubeir, recently met with his Iraqi counterpart, Ibrahim Al-Jaafari, and Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi, during a surprise visit to Baghdad. This is the first visit to Iraq by a Saudi Foreign Minister since 1990, and the first visit by a senior Saudi minister since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Relations between the two countries have a long history of tension – much of which revolves around regional power politics. Iraq sits in the precarious position between Shi’ite-majority Iran and Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia, the two greatest powers in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia has been critical of Iranian influence in Iraq, an effect that has only amplified since the United States began to withdraw from the country. Iraq has also been critical of Saudi Arabia, for intervening in other regional conflicts. For example, in 2015, a Saudi-led coalition intervened in the Yemeni Civil War, drawing criticism from Prime Minister Abadi.
Official diplomatic relations have been strained and, at times, non-existent making this visit all the more significant. Saudi Arabia closed their embassy in Iraq in 1990, following the invasion of Kuwait. It only reopened in December of 2015. Already, Iraq has called to have the ambassador replaced after he made comments condemning Iranian influence and mistreatment of the Sunni population within Iraq.
During a press conference, Jubeir announced that the ambassador would be replaced and that Saudi Arabia was looking to improve ties with Iraq. He stated that the two countries had a number of shared interests including trade, opportunities for investment, and combating extremist terrorism. Specifically, both countries stand to gain from the defeat of ISIS, which controls territory in Iraq and has claimed responsibility for bombings in Saudi Arabia. An increase in cooperation and diplomacy between Iraq and Saudi Arabia could potentially help to more effectively address the issue of violence in the region.
Some see this as an attempt by Saudi Arabia to simply balance Iran’s power, both within Iraq and within the area. However, utilizing diplomacy and establishing stronger connections between Iraq and Saudi Arabia has the potential to increase security and stability in the Middle East, by shifting its focus to the mutual interests of the two countries. In the context of ongoing conflicts and heightened tensions in the region, this meeting could be a sign of more peaceful relations moving forward.