November 15th, 2013
11:25 AM ET

Iraq-Saudi ties: Another U.S. headache?

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.

Topics: Uncategorized

soundoff (59 Responses)
  1. John Walsh

    Does anyone seriously doubt that Al Qaeda in Iraq, in Syria, and Pakistan is sustained by Saudi funding?

    November 15, 2013 at 2:04 pm | Reply
    • Foo Manchu

      Can't speak for everyone, but I sure don't.

      November 15, 2013 at 3:02 pm | Reply
      • Jamal

        That's because you are brain dead !!

        November 19, 2013 at 5:13 am |
    • ZACH

      don't know don't care

      November 15, 2013 at 3:16 pm | Reply
      • Mason

        " don't know don't care " why waste ur time to post reading the article.

        November 16, 2013 at 9:42 am |
      • Jamal

        I bet you if it was the zionist regime in Hell Aviv you'd care !!

        November 19, 2013 at 5:11 am |
    • Josh

      The Saudis are the snake-head of any terror activity. Regardless of what the Saudi officials say, the culture of Saudi Arabia produced 17 men of the Sep 11, 2–1 attackers. Having said that, the Saudi preachers had influenced every terror attackers from London bombers to Boston guys. The USA government support of Saudi Arabia is a sham and make the USA government indirectly supporting terror

      November 15, 2013 at 5:08 pm | Reply
      • DONGSZKIE

        AND WHAT IS THE CULTURE OF THE IRANIAN GOVERNMENT ITSELF. WHAT OTHER FORM OF GOVERNMENT THAT TREATENED OTHER SOVEREIGN NATION ITSELF? AND THE MENTALITY OF THE PEOPLE ITSELF? AND BY THEIR ACTION ITSELF? WHO IS MORE OF A TROUBLE MAKER, THE SAUDIS OR THE IRANIAN GOVERNMENT/

        November 15, 2013 at 5:16 pm |
      • Mark

        Saudi Arabia has no choice but to find a way to make peace with Iran, perhaps as in a treaty of no aggression. Further confrontation will only lead into ruin for BOTH countries.

        November 16, 2013 at 1:03 pm |
    • omar

      All of the sectarian groups that attack minorities in the Middle east are supported by the Saudis. The Wahhabi culture is a very tribal and sectarian doctrine. There is no logic with these people. Trust me I've came to know a couple of them and their ignorance and hateful mindset is disgusting.

      November 16, 2013 at 10:34 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      The relationship between Iraq and Saudi Arabia will hardly improved. Saudi Arabia benefits from Iraq's chaos,

      November 17, 2013 at 6:39 am | Reply
      • j. von hettlingen

        A breakup of Iraq into Kurdish, Sunni and Shia territories might be just what the Saudis want.

        November 17, 2013 at 6:43 am |
      • j. von hettlingen

        The Sunni Arabs support the Islamists. They aren't really helping the Syrians to overthrow Assad, but to establish an Islamist authority, waiting for their chance to take over.

        November 17, 2013 at 6:45 am |
    • FHTEX

      Al Qaeda may be largely funded by Saudi Arabia and, more recently, Qatar, but it's directions come straight from Washington. Saudi Arabia is mad because its support for Al Qaeda may turn against it now that the Syrian conflict is almost over and it doesn't feel it can count on the U..S. much longer because its oil is starting to run out.

      November 17, 2013 at 6:23 pm | Reply
    • Nodack

      I have no idea. We aren't Saudi Arabia Iraq relation experts.

      November 17, 2013 at 11:20 pm | Reply
  2. chrissy

    There are a great deal of countries sustaining their funding, including this country. And by this country i mean the US!

    November 15, 2013 at 3:15 pm | Reply
  3. chrissy

    And as someone who lost to family members on 9/11 im not very pleased learning that my tax dollars have been given to Al Queada members in Syria. And im betting there are a great many others who feel the exact same way!

    November 15, 2013 at 3:19 pm | Reply
  4. DONGSZKIE

    IRAN is known the world over, among the community of nations, to be a terror-sponsoring country. And one of its greatest enemy is ISRAEL & the UNITED STATES. So the U.S. and the WEST must decide now who is his friend, THE SAUDIS or the IRANIANS. ..don't count who has oil. Consider the behavior of the country's government.

    November 15, 2013 at 5:08 pm | Reply
    • steve

      your analysis is strictly based upon regimes. how about the people? iranians are inherently more tolerant, modern and humanistic than saudi arabians. wahhabism and salafism are enemies of the entire world. west africa, east africa, phillipines, and all arabia are threatened constantly. sectarian world war, between shia and sunni, is here. the sunni takfiri types have no regard for any human life and must be defeated–militarily and ideologically.

      November 16, 2013 at 9:22 am | Reply
    • krivka

      Iran sponsors Hezbollah, Saudi's sponsor any fundamental Islamic movement, including Al Queda. They can deny it, but many members of the Saudi Monarch are staunch supporters. They dislike the Shia. Like Ireland vs Northern Ireland. Same religion but different interpretations. All countries do what they can to further their aim. The USA is no exception. Iran's problem is its total control by a religious theocracy, same as Saudi Arabia. Many in the USA would like the same to happen here.

      November 16, 2013 at 4:48 pm | Reply
    • omar

      Iran and America have shared interests in the region. The Saudis are destabilizing the whole region. Look at their mischievous actions in Syria, Pakistan, Iraq , Egypt and Afghanistan.

      November 16, 2013 at 10:37 pm | Reply
  5. Yakobi

    "...the Obama administration...is engaged in negotiations with Iran about its nuclear energy program..."

    Nuclear ENERGY, you say? Bwahahahaha!!!! Since when does a country that literally leaks oil need nuclear energy?
    Iran's goal is to build a nuclear weapon so they can threaten Israel and the United States. And I'm sure right up until they explode a divice, you'll be claiming theirs was a peaceful program, Fahad Nazer.

    November 15, 2013 at 5:51 pm | Reply
    • spring12`

      since 1974 when american started the nuclear plants.

      November 17, 2013 at 1:24 am | Reply
    • spring12`

      It is worth mentioning that saudis are planing to construct 16 nuclear plants by 2020 . are we going to inspect then the same .you are just hypocritical and clueless.

      November 17, 2013 at 1:31 am | Reply
  6. Peter

    Saudi is based on Wahhabism, fanatical sect of Sunni Islam that calls fr killing Jews and Shia Muslims, they are financers of world wide terror

    November 15, 2013 at 6:47 pm | Reply
    • steve

      they espouse death to all infidels, you and me... i reflect the feeling entirely.

      November 16, 2013 at 9:24 am | Reply
      • Saudi

        I am not trying to make you change your mind, but I want to give you some facts about Saudi Arabia, 85-90% of all youth 25 years and under are not religious at all and a great number of them are Agnostic or atheist. I am in my 40 and most of my friends hate all religious shaiks or mullas. But fear is used to control the Saudi people.

        Note : I see a lot hate toward Saudis here and I honestly do not think we Saudi people should take the blame for Bin laden and his criminal group we hate ALQAEDA more than anyone else.

        November 18, 2013 at 1:05 am |
  7. annieL

    It's not our problem.

    November 15, 2013 at 8:20 pm | Reply
  8. john smith

    America is the root of all terror. America has invaded sixty countries since world war 2.
    In 1953 America overthrow Iran's democratic government Mohammad Mosaddegh and installed a brutal dictator Shah. America helped Shah of Iran to establish secret police and killed thousands of Iranian people.
    During Iran-Iraq war evil America supported Suddam Hossain and killed millions of Iranian people. In 1989, America, is the only country ever, shot down Iran's civilian air plane, killing 290 people.
    In 2003,America invaded Iraq and killed 1,000,000+ innocent Iraqi people and 4,000,000+ Iraqi people were displaced.
    Now America is a failed state with huge debt. Its debt will be 22 trillion by 2015.

    November 15, 2013 at 9:17 pm | Reply
    • Rett

      The Soviet Union shot down two Korean airliners......while America certainly has some blood on its hands you have to admit we are a very generous people overall as seen in our quick response to help other nations that have suffered various calamities. It is okay to focus on our good qualities occasionally.

      November 16, 2013 at 6:29 am | Reply
  9. Circus Circus

    Where's the issue. US had no trouble with SA meddling in the Syrian conflict on behalf of the rebels. The whole region is none of our business.

    November 15, 2013 at 10:07 pm | Reply
    • steve

      hmmm, another failed state, on the crossroads of europe, exporting terrorism and targeting the west is none of our business?

      November 16, 2013 at 9:26 am | Reply
  10. JJJ

    Too bad the O is still involved in all this. Otherwise there wouldn't be a negotiation rollout problem.

    November 15, 2013 at 10:40 pm | Reply
  11. chrissy

    Agreed @ Circus Circus. Just like the US had no problem funding the Syrian rebels even knowing that the rebels included Al Qaeda members.

    November 16, 2013 at 12:25 am | Reply
    • spring12`

      I don't think the whole u.s government supported alqueda in syria. mainly I point finger at republican hawks like mccain, graham and menendez.

      November 17, 2013 at 1:37 am | Reply
  12. johndcross1

    The Saudis & Iran are primarily the sponsors of terrorism. While the Saudi government is not financing the terrorist activities of Al Qaida & other allied terrorist organizations, there are wealthy Saudis & other islamic nations wealthy supporters who are directly financing most of these terror organizations. This is a mandate from the Koran to pursue the ultimate islamization of non-muslim countries. While Iran government directly supports terror groups such as Hizbullah, Hamas, Taliban & several terror organizations worldwide with a similar aim as that of Saudi supporters.

    November 16, 2013 at 2:10 am | Reply
    • omar

      I believe the main supporter of Taliban is Saudi Arabia.

      November 16, 2013 at 10:38 pm | Reply
    • spring12`

      I don't think you have a clue what you are talking about. saudis support alqueda, wahabi, salafis, jihadis and taliban .Iran actually supports hamas which is a democratically elected government and hizbollah which is a resistance movement against israeli aggression. bye way both taliban and aates.ed by united stlqueda were creat

      November 17, 2013 at 1:46 am | Reply
  13. Ali H. Alyami

    Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy where civil society is banned and is the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive. Women cannot get a job, go to school or travel without a male relative permission.

    According to former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, Saudi Arabia is the world's largest financier of extremism and terrorism. No one in Saudi Arabia can go against the absolute royals' will and see the son rises again. Saudi citizens (subjects) know that sending money to extremists and terrorists against the ruling family's wishes will be punished severely. Like other Saudi apologists, the writer of this article makes sounds as if the Saudi people are free to what they want.

    The Saudi regime financed Saddam Hussein's war (1980-89) against Iran because of the Saudi/Wahhabi regime's (and be extension society's) religious hate for Shiite Muslims. According to US generals who led US troops in Iraq, 40 to 60% of suicide bombers in Iraq are Saudi citizens. As they are doing against the ongoing Arab people's revolt against tyranny, the Saudis and other Gulf despotic dynasties are doing all they can to make sure democracy does not take root in Iraq and to ensure that turmoil continues in Iraq in order to prevent that country's unity, stability and prevent it from modernize it's oil facilities and compete with the Gulf autocratic Arab monarchies in global markets.

    The writer of this apologetic piece is a former Saudi embassy employee. Members of his family have held and are still holding high government's offices and share the country's stolen wealth and power with the Saudi regime. That's why he describes the monarchy as "conservative" as opposed to what it is and known to be: "The last absolute monarchy on earth."

    November 16, 2013 at 3:20 am | Reply
  14. KEVIN

    The middle east is like watching a perpetual chess game that has been going on for thousands of years. It is both fun to observe from a distance and fun to get into the game as we wish. The culture of the middle east is one of contention. It is in their genes, in their souls. They can't live without the excitement of contention. They love theology and conflict strengthens theology (live and die for God). What a fascinating place.

    November 16, 2013 at 6:06 am | Reply
    • spring12`

      kevin. just to let you know most of the cultures that we practice in west has originated from persia. even christianity has its root in Iran's mithraism. christmas, easter, christmas tree and many other tradition comes from Iran, but forgotten.

      November 17, 2013 at 1:53 am | Reply
  15. J siwat

    Almalki is the master of through the assasinations of his opponenets with his death squads. His hands are tained with Iraqis blood.

    November 16, 2013 at 10:03 am | Reply
  16. J siwat

    Almalki is the master of terror through the assasinations of his opponenets with his death squads. His hands are tained with Iraqis blood.

    November 16, 2013 at 10:09 am | Reply
  17. coflyboy

    The Middle East is nothing but a waste of time and resources for the US, and the American taxpayer is tired of dealing with it. I suggest building a fence around the entire Middle East. Once the fence is up, let them slaughter each other at will. The last one standing wins. This will also help dealing with the Global Overpopulation problem.

    November 16, 2013 at 12:22 pm | Reply
    • Zach

      way to spread peace.... loser !

      November 17, 2013 at 10:36 pm | Reply
  18. Syd Chaden

    This article skirts the real issue, which arises out of the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam. Saudi Arabia is Sunni. Before Saddam Hussein was deposed, Iraq was ruled by Sunnis, but, thanks to the flight of the US, is now Shiite, which has placed it in the Iranian sphere of influence. Each of the Islamic branches considers the other to be infidels, and pursuant to the Islamic doctrine of "death to the infidels", have been killing each other for centuries. Iran. has, in the past, made clear the Shia goal of establishing Shiite rule over the entire Muslim World. Pronouncements concerning the destruction of the Sunnis have not received the widespread publicity that the declarations that Israel must be destroyed have received, but are well known in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia, alarmed at Iranian progress toward nuclear weapons, demanded that Obama fulfill his commitment to prevent Iranian nuclear weapons by destroying the Iranian facilities. Obama refused, and Saudi Arabia has turned to Pakistan for nuclear weapons and missiles to deliver them, so as to counter the Iranian threat. During the conflict in Syria, Iraq has permitted Iran to transport arms to the Syrian government through Iranian land and air space. US influence in Iraq has been replaced by Iranian influence. Saudi Arabia's common border with Iraq spans the width of the country. And so, a soon-to-be nuclear-armed Saudi Arabia is confronting a satellite of the soon-to-be nuclear-armed Iran. The Saudi Arabian military is technologically superior to that of Iraq, but is vastly outnumbered by Iraq, and especially, by a combined Iraqi-Iranian military. A few years ago, both Iraq and Saudi Arabia were considered to be US Allies. Today, neither can be considered to be a US ally, and they are enemies of each other.

    November 16, 2013 at 2:16 pm | Reply
  19. Cynthia Avishegnath

    In hindsight, it would have been better not to have intervened and let Iraq invade Saudi Arabia first, turn it into a puppet republic of Saddam, and then use it as reason to attack Iraq.

    We should have allowed Saddam to dismantle the Saudi regime.

    November 16, 2013 at 7:38 pm | Reply
  20. saywhat

    @chrissy's remarks on our sustained funding to AlQaeda in Syria (and their affiliates in libya during NATO war) are worth noting.
    The rise of AlQaeda in Iraq, they are now at their strongest, is a direct consequence of invasion and occupation of Iraq which destroyed that country and split it wide open to terrorism & perpetual violence.
    Undoubtedly S.Arabia's designs in the M.East are known but they are intertwined with equally unsavory and threat to peace scheming of Netanyahu regime.S.Arabia funded some Mossad operations of bombings and assassinations in Iran. While S.Arabia armed the 'rebels' in Syria, Israel trained them and treated their injured in Israeli hospitals.
    Both are responsible for the Syrian disaster and an obstacle in the US-Iran negotiations.And both these regimes need to be reined in.

    November 17, 2013 at 2:07 pm | Reply
  21. UriNation

    The US needs to abandon the Middle East sand-box.

    November 17, 2013 at 4:13 pm | Reply
    • Zach

      we do more damage then good... so yes i agree

      November 17, 2013 at 10:38 pm | Reply
  22. chrissy

    @ spring12, i don't doubt for a minute that you are right! McCain, Graham and Mendendez being the warmongers that they are, are most assuradly the ones that pushed so hard for the US funding of the Syrian rebels! They need to go! And thank you @ saywhat, my friend! You know me too well! And i told you ppl are more civilised on this blog as compared to TJI. Arent you glad you listened? Lol

    November 17, 2013 at 8:13 pm | Reply
  23. dajowi

    The entire world is tired of hearing about middle east violence, al Qaeda, and muslims in particular.

    November 17, 2013 at 8:27 pm | Reply
  24. martin jude

    Most of the backgrounders to the tiff between Saudi Arabia and Iran have already been supplied by earlier postings. Both sides presented their views in a good way, and surprisingly, there was no acrimony on this forum. Nevertheless, it would be sufficient to say that no one wants to see a proliferation of nuclear arms in the Middle – East. Iran must mean what it says (that its nuclear programme is peaceful), and DO everything possible to co-operate with the IAEA inspectors,thereby living up to the terms of the agreement (between the 5+1 powers and Iran).

    November 17, 2013 at 10:36 pm | Reply
  25. Rick McDaniel

    The U.S. has to face the reality........no one in the middle east is our friend. Absolutely no one.

    November 18, 2013 at 12:15 pm | Reply

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