Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Wikileaks Documents Show Continued Saudi Opposition To Shiite Rule In Iraq

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has refused to normalize relations with Iraq over fears of Shiite rule and Iranian influence (Britannica Blog)

Included in the recent Wikileaks release of U.S. State Department cables were several discussions between American diplomats and Saudi and Iraqi officials about Iraq-Saudi relations. Those talks disclosed the continued problems between the two Arab governments. The Saudis were weary of democracy, believing it turned Iraq over to the Shiite majority who were seen as being pro-Tehran. They therefore supported Sunni parties and tribes in the March 2010 elections. The Iraqis on the other hand, believed that the Saudis were trying to undermine the government and create sectarian tensions. This set of strained relations has been present ever since the U.S. invasion in 2003.

The State Department papers covered Iraqi-Saudi issues from early 2009 to the beginning of 2010. On March 15, 2009 Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah told President Obama’s counterterrorism adviser John Brennan that he didn’t trust Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and believed that he was an Iranian agent. In July, during a visit by Maliki to Washington, he asked President Obama to get the Saudis to stop interfering in Iraq. The premier said that Riyadh was backing Sunnis and increasing sectarian tensions in the country. On September 24, then U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill wrote the Saudis’ mistrust of Shiites, who they saw as being pawns of Iran, led Riyadh to not only want greater Sunni power, but a weak and fractured government in Baghdad to stave off Tehran’s influence. Maliki told the Americans that he believed part of the problem was that the Wahabi Saudis looked down upon Shiites in general. He cited Saudi clerics who would often make anti-Shiite statements with no responses by the government. Due to these fears and biases the Saudis were giving money and media support to Sunni parties and tribes before the 2010 election to oppose the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and the Iraqi National Alliance, which were the most pro-Iranian forces in Iraq. Several Iraqi officials complained about this interference to U.S. diplomats. On December 14, President Jalal Talabani went to the Americans accusing the Saudis of talking Kuwait out of several agreements with Baghdad. Finally, a February 2010 paper said that Turkey’s Foreign Minister reported that the Saudis were spending large amounts of money on Iraqi political parties because they didn’t want another Shiite led government. 

The comments contained in the State Department cables should be no surprise as Iraq and Saudi Arabia have had rough relations since the 2003 overthrow of Saddam. In 2004 reports started to emerge that Saudi charities were funding the Iraqi insurgency. In 2007, the U.S. military announced that 45% of the foreign fighters coming to Iraq were from Saudi Arabia, and almost half of the 135 foreigners held by American forces were Saudis. Riyadh admitted that their young men were going to Iraq, but claimed that they were doing all they could to stop them. An advisor to Maliki questioned that remark, and countered by saying that the Saudis knew exactly what was happening and were doing nothing about it. During an August 2007 visit by Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the kingdom claimed that Iraq was the real threat to the region because terrorists there could spread to Saudi Arabia. U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalizad later went on TV and stated that the Saudis were destabilizing Iraq. King Abdullah also refused to meet Maliki, and although the king promised the U.S. to open an embassy in Baghdad at the end of 2007 that has never happened. In April 2009 Prince Turki al-Faisal stated that the U.S. invasion turned Iraq over to Iran, and Maliki responded the next month by accusing the kingdom of not stopping their people from joining the insurgency. As a result, the prime minister said he was giving up on improving relations between the two countries. (1) In February 2010, just before Iraq’s elections, King Abdullah gave Allawi the royal treatment when he visited Riyadh, and then two months later held meetings with Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, Vice President Tariq Hashemi, and even the head of the Supreme Council Ammar al-Hakim, but refused to offer an invitation to Maliki. In May the head of Saudi intelligence accused the prime minister of trying to overturn his country’s voting results. 

Finally, the sore relations have held up trade and aid between the two. The Saudis promised $500 million in assistance after the U.S. invasion, but have only delivered a small fraction of that amount. They also initially promised to forgive 80% of Iraq’s debt, which was largely accumulated when Riyadh supported Saddam in the Iran-Iraq War, but then refused to do so. They have not opened the border crossings between the two countries as well, limiting commerce.

Despite Iraqi and American attempts to forge better ties between Baghdad and Riyadh since 2003, the Saudis’ paranoia about Iran and their bias against Shiites, have prevented any thawing of relations. Instead, the kingdom has tried to keep Iraq’s government at bay diplomatically and economically, while both knowingly or tacitly supporting the insurgency, and backing Sunni parties to counter the Shiite ones. This has largely failed to change anything in Iraq, other than gain the ire of the Iraqi government. Unless some kind of nationalist coalition like Iyad Allawi’s comes to power, it seems that the Saudis will continue to give a cold shoulder to Iraq. That has an impact throughout the region, as Iraq will have a hard time gaining full acceptance in the larger Middle East until Saudi Arabia finally comes to terms with the fact that Shiites are going to be running Iraq for the foreseeable future.


1. Agence France Presse, “No More Gestures To Saudi Arabia – Iraqi PM Maliki,” 5/28/09


Agence France Presse, “No More Gestures To Saudi Arabia – Iraqi PM Maliki,” 5/28/09
- “Saudis rebuff Iraq over insurgency,” 5/30/09

Dagher, Sam, “Anti-Saudi tide rises in Iraq,” Christian Science Monitor, 8/9/07

Dunne, Charles, “Iraq Going Forward: Threats to its Sovereignty, Prospects for its Future Role in the Middle East,” Institute for the Theory and Practice of International Relations, College of William and Mary, 4/13/09

Epstein, Rafael, “US blames Islamic charities for funding Iraq attacks,” ABC Radio, 10/22/04

Gause, F. Gregory, “Iraq 2012: The Regional Context,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 4/3/08

Gordon, Michael, “Meddling by Neighbors Adds to Iraq’s Woes,” New York Times, 12/5/10

Hill, Christopher, “The Great Game, In Mesopotamia: Iraq And It’s Neighbors, Part I,” U.S. Embassy, Baghdad, 9/24/09

Jeffrey, James, “U/S Burns’ February 18 Meetings With U/S,” U.S. Embassy, Ankara, 2/25/10

Kaysi, Danial Anas, “The Saudis go to Baghdad,” The National Interest, 4/30/10

Kelley, Matt, “Allies fall short on Iraq aid pledge,” USA Today, 1/30/08

Laessing, Ulf, “ANALYSIS-Saudi wants bigger role in Iraq to counter Iran,” Reuters, 8/2/10

Lynch, Marc, “Iraq and the Gulf on the rocks,” Marc Lynch Blog, Foreign Policy, 6/2/09

Oppel, Richard, “Foreign Fighters in Iraq Are tied to Allies of U.S.,” New York Times, 11/22/07

Parker, Ned, “The Conflict In Iraq: Saudi Role In Insurgency,” Los Angeles Times, 7/15/07

Raphaeli, Dr. Nimrod, “Western Countries Cancel Iraqi Debt, Gulf Countries Don’t,” Middle East Media Research Institute, 5/15/08

Rubin, Alissa, “Iraq Tries to Prove Autonomy, and Makes Inroads,” New York Times, 4/15/09

Sabah, Zaid and Tyson, Ann Scott, “Security Pact on Iraq Would Set U.S. Exit,” Washington Post, 12/11/07

Trend, “Experts: Saudi Arabia has few pressure levers for next Iraqi Government,” 4/16/10

Youssef, Nancy and Strobel, Warren, “U.S., Saudi Arabia have drifted apart,” McClatchy Newspapers, 8/2/07


Iraqi Mojo said...

Saudi opposition to Shiite rule in Iraq has always been obvious.

Joel Wing said...

To Iraq watchers yes, but I'm not so sure to the general public. The Saudis were very open about their support of Allawi this election, but I'm not sure how many people realized that they had shunned Iraq beforehand, and were probably tacitly supporting the insurgency as well for quite a while.

dave in boca said...

Back in the last century, I was Political Officer in Riyadh and was one of the very few American officials recently to have met with Minister of the Interior, Prince Nayef, who I believe is pressuring King Abdullah on Iraq. The Saudis have always 'farmed out' their neighboring countries to senior princes who retain a disproportionate influence over Saudi policy in a given country---Nayef has always been the most virulent pro-Sunni almost to the point of fanaticism and his antagonism to Shi'ites is well-known. He is also very wary of American influence, and his chief interest is with the Persian Gulf [or however you want to name that body of water].

King Abdullah himself and his brother Crown Prince Sultan are in their late eighties. Prince Nayef is next in line and 'only' around eighty. He could be King within five years. Something to worry about, as he is rabid on Salafist and Wahhabi issues to the point of excess.

Personal note: I accompanied the US Ambassador in a meeting with him and his brother, the Vice Minister of Interior, and both were almost visibly annoyed with the United States' influence on Saudi policy, and surprisingly let this be known to the two Americans on the courtesy visit. I reported it back to DC, but it was pre-WikiLeaks.

BillinChicago said...

Sure, the Saudis have been giving the Iraqis a cold shoulder. If by a cold shoulder, you mean one with explosives strapped to it:

Joel Wing said...

Dave in boca,

Thanks for the insight. It would seem that Saudi Arabia is one of many countries that the U.S. has relations with that are working with us and against us at the same time. Pakistan would be another.

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