By Fahad Nazer, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Fahad Nazer is a political analyst at JTG Inc. He was previously a political analyst at the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington DC. The views expressed are his own.
While many observers continue to be perplexed by President Barack Obama’s policies in the Middle East, one thing at least is clear: the Obama administration is committed to diplomacy. Not only is it trying to get the Israeli-Palestinian peace process back on track, but it is engaged in negotiations with Iran about its nuclear energy program despite some serious misgivings about the negotiations in Congress.
While all this has been going on, Secretary of State John Kerry tried last week to mend fences with Saudi Arabia, which has itself expressed its dismay – both privately and publically – about the slow pace of the peace process, the quick pace of the talks with Iran, and what it views as U.S. backtracking on Syria. But an already busy Kerry should add one more item to his to-do list – prodding Saudi Arabia and Iraq into turning the page on their most intense bilateral tensions in years.
Saudi-Iraqi relations have been complicated. A series of military coups in Iraq led to the consolidation of power by the Baathist party in 1968, and although this “secular” military regime was not a natural ally for the conservative Saudi kingdom, the Saudis sided with Saddam Hussein in his eight-year war against the Iranian theocracy of Ayatollah Khomeini.
But despite the support that Saudi Arabia provided Iraq during that war, everything changed when Saddam invaded Kuwait in August 1990 and amassed thousands of troops along the Saudi border. One would be hard pressed to find another moment in their history where Saudis felt such an imminent threat to their security as they did during the months between the invasion and the start of U.S.-led “Desert Storm,” an operation that Saudi Arabia played a major role in. A little more than a decade later, Saudi Arabia is believed to have also provided limited support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, despite Saudi trepidation that removing Saddam would bolster Iran’s influence in the region, including in Iraq.
Saudi Arabia’s role in these interventions have left ties with Baghdad strained, and although Saudi Arabia did name an ambassador to Iraq last year, it is yet to open an embassy in Baghdad, instead asking its ambassador in Jordan to double up as non-resident ambassador to Iraq.
And this month, the simmering tensions burst out into the open when Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki claimed that the only government in the region that Iraq has any problems with is the Saudis.
“Saudi Arabia has chosen not to be a friend of Iraq. In contrast, Iraq wants friendly relations with Saudi Arabia,” al-Maliki reportedly said. “We don’t have any problems with anyone except Saudi Arabia. And whenever we try to solve our problems with them, we hear [negative] statements.”
During his recent visit to the United States, al-Maliki maintained that defeating al Qaeda was his top objective, a remark that highlights another source of tension – alleged Saudi support for terrorism operations. Iraqi officials have often and long accused Saudi Arabia of financing al Qaeda in Iraq, yet although a finger has been pointed at wealthy individuals and private organizations in Arab Gulf countries, there is no evidence indicating that the Saudi government knowingly supported al Qaeda’s branch in Iraq.
True, as with Syria, Iraq is one of several arenas where Iran and Saudi Arabia find themselves on opposite sides politically. But despite their ongoing competition over regional supremacy, the two sides appear to understand the parameters within which this “game” is played, and there is actually a great deal of pragmatism on both sides.
The problem for Saudi-Iraqi relations is that such rules of the game have yet to be established for these two countries, meaning that while Saudi relations with Iran follow a cool but predictable path, the deep mistrust between Riyadh and Baghdad has led to a certain unpredictability that risks serious miscalculation on either side.
The reality is that Saudi Arabia is a status quo state that places a high premium on stability, yet the overthrow of the previous Iraqi regime made room for a government that is very much (as are the governments of the Arab Spring) part of a new order in the Middle East. This suggests that how Saudi-Iraq relations develop could act as a bellwether for the rest of the region.
Prime Minister al-Maliki said Saturday that the United States is indeed mediating between the two countries. If the United States wants to avoid seeing another flashpoint in the Middle East, it had best do all that it can encourage these two nations to resolve their differences and suspicions amicably.