One aspect of social and political relations in the Middle East, both internally and externally, is the split between Sunnis and Shiites. This religious split has been a major impediment to peaceful relations and cooperation.
On August 13, 2009, the Iraqi daily Al-Zaman cited a statement by Yousef Al-Matlabi, political advisor to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, accusing Saudi Arabia of inciting violence in Iraq. As evidence, he noted the arrest in Iraq of several Saudi nationals who had recently entered the country with clear instructions from the Saudi clerical establishment to carry out acts of violence against Shi'ite sites.(1)
This report examines Saudi-Iraqi relations from the perspective of Iraq, which sees Saudi policy as motivated by hatred of the Shi'ites.
In one of his books, liberal Iraqi writer Dr. Abd Al-Khaliq Hussein relates a story told him by former Arab League official Dr. Abbas Hilmi Al-Hilli that goes to the heart of the Saudi hostility toward Iraq. Following the July 14, 1958 coup in Baghdad that toppled the Iraqi monarchy, Dr. Al-Hilli visited Riyadh on business, where he met his old friend Prince Faisal, later to become king of Saudi Arabia; at that time, Faisal was prime minister. Inquiring about the new Iraqi regime, Faisal asked: "Is [Iraqi President] Abdul Karim Qassim a Sunni or a rafidhi [a pejorative term for a Shi'ite]?" Al-Hilli replied, "I believe his father was Sunni, because he was buried in a Sunni cemetery." Faisal responded, "You have put my mind at ease. We want to determine our political position towards Iraq, but we have been in a quandary because we cannot allow al-rafidha [the Shi'ites] to [lead] a government, and if there is such a government we will not deal with it."(2)
Fifty years later, Saudi Arabia still seems to be in a quandary as to how to deal with a Shi'ite-led Iraqi government. Saudi King Abdullah has refused to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki on the grounds that Al-Maliki is allegedly collaborating with Iran. Saudi Arabia has also refused so far to open an embassy in Baghdad. But, for the Iraqi government, the worst Saudi offense is the support given by the kingdom, and especially by its Wahhabi clerics, to terrorism in Iraq through the supply of funds and suicide bombers.
The Causes of the Saudi Hostility Towards Iraq
The roots of the hostility between Iraq and Saudi Arabia go back to 1917, when the Al-Saud clan took control of the Arabian Peninsula, expelling the Hashemite family, descendents of the Prophet Mohammad, which had ruled the region for centuries. The British Government then installed a member of the Hashemite family as the first king of Iraq (King Faisal I). The resulting tension between the two countries has never fully subsided, despite the 1958 military coup which put a violent end to the Hashemite monarchy in Iraq.
The Saudis' present hostility toward Iraq seems to have three dimensions – religious, political, and economic.
I. Religious Factors
According to Wahhabism, the fundamentalist stream of Sunni Islam which is the official religion of Saudi Arabia, Shi'ite Islam, to which the majority of Iraqis adhere, is a form of kufr (apostasy), and its adherents are rafidhah (infidels) who must be fought.
During the last quarter of the 19th century, Wahhabi marauders raided the cities of Karbala and Najaf in Iraq, the Shi'ites' holiest cities, pillaging their shrines and killing thousands. The raids continued in the 20th century, the most recent of them being in 1920, when Wahhabi marauders tried once again to pillage Karbala but were repelled by the British army.
Though it has been nearly a century since the last raid, Wahhabi hostility towards the Shi'ites has never disappeared, and since the renewal of Shi'ite rule following the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003, it has reemerged. Iraqi writer Dr. Abdul Khaliq Hussein has mentioned dozens of fatwas issued by Saudi Wahhabi clerics in the last few years inciting youth to volunteer for jihad against the rafidha in Iraq. A recent example of this hostility was provided by Sheikh Adel Al-Kalbani, imam of the Haram Mosque in Mecca, who, in an interview on an Arabic-language BBC program, accused Shi'ite clerics of apostasy.(3)
The Iraqis maintain that the Kingdom is behind most of the recent suicide bombings in Iraq, and that half of the Al-Qaeda-affiliated fighters in the country are Saudis. They also claim that the Saudis recruit suicide bombers, and, in collaboration with the Syrian intelligence, supply them with weapons and money and transport them to Iraq.(4) Iraqi columnist Salam Al-'Issa names Saudi Arabia as the country most implicated in instigating violence and undermining stability in Iraq in the recent months. He says that the numerous car bombings are aimed at preventing Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Maliki from consolidating his rule and at demonstrating his government's inability to bring about security. At the same time, he claims, the Saudis are pressuring the Sunnis in Iraq to avoid reaching an accommodation with the Shi'ite-led government. He further contends that Saudi Arabia has allocated a considerable amount of money to the objective of defeating Al-Maliki and to the long-term goal of bringing the Sunnis back to power.(5)
A fairly direct threat against Iraq was uttered by Nawaf 'Obeid, former managing director of the Saudi National Security Assessment Project in Riyadh. In a Washington Post op-ed, he threatened that, if the U.S. withdrew from Iraq, "one of the first consequences [would] be a massive Saudi intervention to stop the Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias from butchering the Sunnis [there]."(6) The Saudi government disassociated itself from the article. However, shortly thereafter, on January 16, 2007, a high-level U.S. official told CNN that Saudi Arabia was thinking of sending a military force to the primarily Sunni Al-Anbar Province if the new U.S. strategy in Iraq failed. (7)
It can hardly be coincidence that during Al-Maliki's visit to the U.S. last week to discuss strategic issues with the Obama administration, the Iraqi media reported that 17 "Saudi terrorists" infiltrated Iraq to carry out bombings in order "to undermine the country's peace and stability."(8)
Prime Minister Al-Maliki criticized the silence of the Arab governments in the face of fatwas issued primarily by Wahhabi clerics in Saudi Arabia inciting against Shi'ite and calling to kill them. He said the fatwas were behind the violence in Iraq.(9) In a speech to the Iraqi community in Washington, D.C., Al-Maliki warned that "huge amounts of money" had been earmarked by neighboring countries (which he did not name) for interference in the next Iraqi parliamentary elections, set for mid-January 2010.(10)
II. Political Factors
The thrust of the Saudi criticism against the Iraqi government is that it has fallen under the influence of Iran, which is seeking to spread Shi'ism into Sunni lands, and that Prime Minister Al-Maliki has failed to fulfill his promise to the Saudi monarch to bring Iraqi Sunnis into his government. The Saudi TV channel Al-Arabiya pointed out that "Saudi Arabia has profound doubts" about the Iraqi government led by the Shi'ite Da'wa Party, which has close connections to Iran.(11) The Saudis explain their dislike of the Shi'ite government with concerns about "the loss of Iraq's Arab identity [urubat al-iraq]." As former Saudi information minister Jamil Al-'Hujailan said, "The idea that Iraq should be half Arab [i.e. Shi'ite, that is, not fully Arab] is beyond comprehension!"(12)
Another Saudi concern has to do with the having a democratic country on its eastern border. The Saudi government, anchored in a combination of theocracy and autocracy, is concerned that the Iraqi democratic virus might infect Saudi political culture. To isolate itself from Iraq, Saudi Arabia has signed a $1 billion contract with the European defense company EADS, for the construction of a 900-kilometer [562-mile] fence.
Saudi Arabia Refuses To Open an Embassy in Baghdad
Another expression of Saudi Arabia's discomfort with the current Iraqi government is the Saudis' failure to open an embassy in Baghdad, despite the fact that formal diplomatic relations were renewed in 2004. Iraq, for its part, did reopen its embassy in Riyadh in 2007. According to Iraqi researcher Dr. 'Abbas Al-Yaseri, Saudi Arabia continues to bet on the failure of the democratic experiment in Iraq, and to consider the opening of a Saudi embassy in Baghdad as tantamount to supporting the Iraqi government.(13)
The most serious denunciation of the Saudi attitude toward Iraq came from former Iraqi interior minister Bayan Jabr, one of the leaders of the Supreme Islamic Council, which has strong ties with Iran. Jabr declared, "Iraq is the cradle of civilization that taught humanity to read and write, and now Bedouins who ride camels wish to teach us lessons."(14)
Saudi Arabia has also rejected a proposal to include Iraq in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The Kingdom believes that the Iraqi regime is not worthy of its confidence, and, indeed, that it poses a danger to the entire region.
Apart from its dislike for the current Iraqi government, the Saudi government is genuinely afraid that, given its human resources and economic potential, Iraq will supplant Saudi Arabia as the regional leader should it gain membership in the GCC. (15)
Iraq Blames Saudi Arabia for the Tense Relations
Unintimidated by the Saudis, Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Maliki has blamed Saudi Arabia for the tense relations between the two countries. He argues that his government cannot continue to try to improve the relations with Saudi Arabia unilaterally. He says that Iraqi goodwill toward the Saudis has been misconstrued by the latter as a sign of weakness, and that it is of no use to continue this way unless the Saudi government shows an interest in improving relations with Iraq.
Al-Maliki was no doubt offended by the refusal of King Abdullah to meet with him during the 2007 Arab summit in Qatar, on the grounds that Al-Maliki was allegedly "inflaming sectarian division in Iraq."(16)
Prince Na'if Denies Iraqi Accusations
Saudi Second Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Prince Na'if bin Abdul-Aziz, one of the most powerful political figures in Saudi Arabia, has denied that that the Kingdom has taken a negative stand regarding rapprochement with Iraq. In an interview with the Saudi daily Al-Watan, he said that some in Iraq [namely Sunni or insurgent elements] were acting in a manner inconsistent with the interests of Iraq and asking the Kingdom to stand behind them, but that "this would not happen." He added that the Kingdom was acting in the interest of the Iraqis and promoting "the return of Iraq to its unity, integrity, and complete sovereignty over its entire territory." He asserted that no one is infiltrating into Iraq from Saudi Arabia, and that on the contrary, Iraqis were infiltrating Saudi Arabia.(17)
The first part of this statement is factually correct, because most of the Saudi jihadists enter Iraq through Syria. The second part is a completely illogical comparison, because there is no parallel between the Saudi jihadists who enter Iraq and the Iraqi smugglers or job seekers who possibly enter the Kingdom. As a matter of fact, Saudi Arabia has refused to exchange 100 Saudi terrorists held in Iraqi prisons for some 1,000 Iraqis held in Saudi prisons, most of whom are accused of illegal entry or smuggling.(18) There is absolutely no evidence of a single Iraqi carrying out terrorist activity in the Kingdom.
III. Economic Factors
Both Iraq and Saudi Arabia are founding members of the Organization of Oil Producing Countries (OPEC); indeed, the cartel was launched in Baghdad in September 1960. Each of the cartel's 11 current members is subject to a quota system of oil production, officially referred to as the "production agreement," determined by the size of the proven reserves.
Saudi Arabia is the largest oil-producing country among the members of the organization, with proven reserves of about 264 billion barrels of crude oil. As such, it is the dominant force in that organization, and it is deeply concerned about possible changes in the supply equation that could diminish its role and influence in the international oil market.
Iraq is acknowledged to have the world's third largest proven petroleum reserves (after Saudi Arabia and Iran) and some of the lowest extraction costs. However, only a fraction of its known fields are currently producing, because much of its oil infrastructure is in poor shape due to years of wars, sanctions, and neglect. When full explorations finally get underway, Iraq may prove to have far more crude than the current estimate of 115 billion barrels. Indeed, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh told The Times of London that geological surveys and seismic data complied "by reputable, international oil companies" suggest that Iraq has the world's largest proven reserves – 350 billion barrels – exceeding the proven reserves of Saudi Arabia. (19)
Furthermore, unlike Saudi Arabia, Iraq also has huge quantities of natural gas which are just beginning to be explored commercially. Iraq has committed to supplying 15 billion cubic meters of gas annually by 2011 to fill half the capacity of the proposed Nabucco pipeline, designed to carry natural gas to Europe from central Asia and the Middle East. The Financial Times called it an "historic deal."(20)
Saudi Arabia's weight as a Middle Eastern power is measured by its oil reserves and its overwhelming influence in OPEC. The emergence of Iraq as a major supplier of energy, both crude and natural gas, could reduce the Saudi influence in OPEC and, more significantly, reduce its weight in Middle Eastern political equations. There is no doubt that the Kingdom is keeping an eye on the energy development in Iraq, which could jeopardize its dominance in the international oil market.
While the Saudi hostility toward Iraq is colored largely by sectarian considerations, one should not completely discount the genuine concern of Saudi Arabia and other leading Sunni governments in the Middle East, particularly Egypt and Jordan, about the expansionist threats of revolutionary Iran and about Iran's aggressive competition with the KSA for domination of the Muslim world.
While the Iraqi government is ruled primarily by Shi'ites, one should not lose sight of the fact that Iraq, as a country, is a multiethnic society with strong and vibrant Kurdish and Sunni minorities who will not agree to subordinate the country to Iran. In fact, among the Iraqi Shi'a themselves there are strong secular elements, such as the group led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who are suspicious of Iran's intensions regarding Iraq and do not want to play into Iranian hands.
When Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Maliki spoke recently to the Iraqi community in the Washington, D.C. area, he made it clear that his perspective is that of an Iraqi nationalist – one who will be leading an independent and sovereign Iraq, not a satellite of Iran or a nation under Iranian hegemony.
*Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli is Senior Analyst (emeritus) at MEMRI.
(1) Al-Zaman (Iraq), August 13, 2009.
(2) 'Abd Al-Khaliq Hussein, Dawr Al-Saudia fi Tadmir Al-Iraq (The role of Saudi Arabia in the Destruction of Iraq), www.annaqad.com July 28, 2007.
(3) See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 2355, "First Black Saudi Appointed Imam of Haram Mosque in Mecca Accuses Shi'ites of Apostasy and Discusses Driving Jews and Christians Out of Arabian Peninsula; Claims His Appointment 'More Significant' than Obama's Election," May 13, 2009, http://memri.org/bin/articles.cgi?Page=archives&Area=sd&ID=... .
(4) www.annabaa.org (July 18, 2007).
(5) Shabakat al-iraq al-thaqafiyyah (Iraq’s Cultural Network), No. 2699, July 6, 2009.
(6) The Washington Post, November 29, 2006.
(7) www.muslmnet/vb/archive/index.php/t-227684.html (April 30, 2007).
(8) Al-Rafidayn, Baghdad, July 26, 2009.
(10) Speech at the Willard Hotel, Washington, D.C. July 25, 2009.
(11) Alarabiya.net May 30, 2009.
(12) Al-Sharq al-Awsat, London, November 29, 2005.
(13) Al-Mada, Iraq, May 31, 2009.
(14) www.muslm.net/vb/archive/index.php/t-227/684.html of April 30, 2007.
(15) Al-Multaqa Network (Iraq), June 25, 2009.
(16) Al-Mada, May 31, 2009.
(17) Cited by Al-Mada, Iraq, May 31, 2009; Al-Arabiya, Saudi Arabia, May 30, 2009.
(18) Almalafpress.net, July 16, 2009.
(19) The Times, London, May 20, 2008.
(20) The Financial Times, U.K., July 14, 2009.