On 30 July Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman welcomed controversial Iraqi Shia leaderMuqtada al-Sadr.
This is not Sadr’s first visit since the 2003 American occupation. He arrived in Riyadh in 2006 at the height of the Iraqi resistance to the occupation and the Iraqi civil war. But the visit was unsuccessful then. It yielded little benefits to either side. Like other aspiring clerics turned politicians, Sadr entered Iraqi politics with his own Jaysh al-Mahdi militia that later changed its name to the Peace Brigades.
Mohammed bin Salman is building on a new strategy to lure the controversial but famous and influential Shia cleric into Riyadh’s orbit
Saudi Arabia grew very frustrated over the Iranian expansion in Iraq after 2003 and found itself constantly backing losing Iraqi horses. From patronising Sunni tribal chiefs in 2005 as part of al-Tawafuq electoral list to backing the Iraqi Sunni-Shia coalitions under Iyad Allawi in 2010, Saudi efforts to find an entry into post-Saddam Iraqi politics led to further frustration amounting to hostility on several occasions.
Saudi relations with Iraq deteriorated so much during Nouri al-Maliki’s premiership with Iraq bluntly accusing Saudi Arabia of sponsoring terrorism and precipitating a sectarian war in Iraq as a result of its Wahhabi ideology and the Saudi jihadis found in Iraq. Only in 2015 did a Saudi ambassador return to Iraq after almost 25 years of absence.
Sadr’s recent visit to Jeddah is a break from past Saudi practices and strategies. Mohammed bin Salman and his Trump administration backers want to limit Iranian expansion in the Arab world without outright military confrontation with Iran or its various militia that operate in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.
An ally against Iran
Consequently bin Salman is building on a new strategy to lure the controversial but famous and influential Shia cleric into Riyadh’s orbit. If he decides not to boycott the 2018 Iraqi elections, Sadr and his Sadrist movement, popular among the poor of Baghdad’s Madinat al-Sadr and the south, will need all the support he can summon against his Shia rivals, for example the Dawa Party and other weaker Iraqi secularists, both appealing to the aspiring Iraqi middle classes.
Sadr’s relations with Iran have always been tense and he never enjoyed the full support of either Iranian officials or the grand ayatollahs of Qum. The first despised his Arabness and erratic politics while the latter resented his unwillingness to endorse the theory of Wilayat al-Faqih, or rule of the jurists, which is at the heart of the establishment of the Islamic republic.
Although he descends from a family of Shia religious scholars, Sadr is not an established theologian and has no high training that would allow him to become an ayatollah one day.
Mohammed bin Salman and his Washington advisers may have reached the conclusion that a Shia-Shia civil war in Iraq is the only way to roll back Iranian influence
Saudi Arabia is desperate to find an Iraqi Shia Arab nationalist. Mohammed bin Salman is counting on Sadr, who is known for propagating Arabness together with his anchorage in Shiism.
Sadr is the son of the famous Arab Shia grand ayatollah, Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, who was assassinated in 1999. He is the son-in-law of another grand ayatollah, Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr. While the Sadr family has its origins in Lebanon, they had been in Najaf in Iraq for a very long time. They were at the centre of religious learning in the hawza (study circles) of Najaf, which had been the main centre of Shia theologians before Qum in Iran.
Supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr take part in a silent protest on 17 February, 2017 in central Baghdad (AFP)
Mohammed bin Salman and his Washington advisers may have reached the conclusion that a Shia-Shia civil war in Iraq is the only way to roll back Iranian influence and wean Iraqis off the unprecedented support that Iran had lent the government in its fight against al-Qaeda and later the Islamic state.
With the fall of Mosul, most of the credit has gone to Iran and its sponsored militia on the ground in Iraq. Its role is destined to grow further rather than shrink, unless a new Shia civil war materialises and splits Iraqis along fault lines that had tormented them throughout their history in the 20th century.
The fault lines amount to a form of schizophrenia, as Iraqis have yet to reconcile their Shiism with their Arabism. According to Loulouwa al-Rachid, Iraqi specialist at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, Arabism and Shiism are in Iraqi blood – Saddam Hussein didn't invent this split identity and it will keep dividing the Iraqi body politic.
In the post-1958 revolution era, it had other labels: Arabist vs Iraqist/communists. Today, the outcome of this struggle depends on whom or which region in Iraq controls the post-Baathist state.
Patronising Muqtada al-Sadr is part of a plan to divide the Shia zones of Iraq between those which are allies of Iran and those which resent its takeover of their country in the last 14 years
If it's the deeply tribal and underdeveloped Shia south, Iraq will definitely tilt toward Arabism. There they hate Iran, and memories of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s are still very strong since their sons were killed by Khomeinists and Iraqi exiles. If the balance tilts toward the Shia Islamist Hizb al-Dawa, the current ruling party, Iraqi politics will cultivate some Iraqi distinctiveness and a sense of superiority vis-a-vis what they call the “badu (Bedouin) of central Arabia and the Gulf”.
Now Saudi Arabia is desperate to see the departure of those who are driven by a strong sense of Iraqi superiority and Shiism such as the successive Iraqi governments that were led by the Dawa party, especially under prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. It seeks to normalise relations with Iraq to pursue the strategy of shrinking Iran’s influence.
In this project, patronising Muqtada al-Sadr is part of a plan to divide the Shia zones of Iraq between those which are allies of Iran and those which resent its takeover of their country in the last 14 years.
Will Mohammed bin Salman be successful in precipitating a Shia-Shia split and perhaps a civil war? This all depends on the response of Iran, which has proved itself more resilient and savvy than its Saudi arch-rival. Without the colossal spending on military equipment that would match that of Saudi Arabia, Iran managed to create loyal militia across the region.
Saudi Arabia also creates militias but they seem to be less reliable than those created by Iran. In fact, those Saudi-sponsored militia tend to occasionally challenge Saudi Arabia and bite the hand that feeds them. We still remember how Osama bin Laden and his Afghan Arabs enjoyed the backing of Saudi Arabia in the 1980s, but within a decade they became arch-enemies of the Saudi regime. Iran has sponsored Hezbollah in Lebanon since 1982 and almost four decades later, it is still loyal to Iran.
Saudi Arabia’s rivals can play the same game as the prince and bring the war to the heart of Saudi Arabia as Mohammed bin Salman promised to do to Iran
Mohammed bin Salman’s strategy to reach out to opposition groups in Iraq may echo his bid to support multiple opposition movements to his rivals. After supporting the Iranian Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) and more recently reaching out to Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen in Pennsylvania, the crown prince’s strategy may backfire.
His rivals in Iran, Turkey and even Iraq have at their disposal many cards that can seriously destabilise his rule. Turkey can further support Saudi Sunni Islamists, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, while Iran can precipitate a Shia uprising in the Eastern Province. Saudi Arabia’s rivals can play the same game as the prince and bring the war to the heart of Saudi Arabia as Mohammed bin Salman promised to do to Iran.
After Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Qatar, Mohammed bin Salman has turned his attention to Iraq where complex Shia politics and shifting alliances prevail. It is not clear that he understands the consequences of playing with fire. He may be simply following the advice of Washington and its consultants.
If creating fires around Saudi Arabia protects his rule, then Muhammad bin Salman has succeeded. But if the objective is to create a peaceful region with reconciliation rather than war being the strategy of the future, then he has utterly failed.
- Madawi Al-Rasheed is a visiting professor at the Middle East Centre at LSE. On Twitter: @MadawiDr