Why Tensions are Rising Between Iraq and Saudi Arabia

On January 2, 2017, Iraqi Vice President Nouri al-Maliki scathingly criticized Saudi Arabia's Middle East policy and warned Iranian reporters that Riyadh was a breeding ground for terrorism. Maliki's strident rhetoric highlighted the marked deterioration in Iraq-Saudi Arabia relations in recent months. This upsurge in hostility has been triggered by a string of confrontations between the two countries, jeopardizing a fragile normalization that began with Saudi Arabia's 2012 decision to reopen a major Iraqi oil pipeline running through its soil.

In early January 2016, Iraqi Shiite leaders organized mass protests against Riyadh's execution of Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr. This unrest occurred in tandem with Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's calls for a suspension of Baghdad-Riyadh diplomatic relations. Even though Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi rejected al-Sadr's demands and offered to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Iraq swiftly transitioned to an anti-Saudi foreign policy. Baghdad's confrontational approach towards Riyadh has been characterized by rhetorical condemnations of Saudi involvement in Iraqi politics and resistance to Saudi geopolitical aspirations in the Middle East.

Many analysts have presented an economic explanation for this escalation of hostilities. In particular, numerous reports have drawn attention to the recently intensified competition for oil exports between Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

This explanation, while compelling, is an incomplete assessment. It neglects the three crucial factors rooted in Iraq's domestic politics and broader foreign policy goals that have shaped Iraq's conduct towards Saudi Arabia. These factors relate to Iraq's desire to strengthen its alliance with Iran, Baghdad's opposition to Saudi Arabia's attempts to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Abadi's desire to unite Iraqi Shiites around his leadership.

First, Iraq's increasingly confrontational rhetoric towards Saudi Arabia is motivated by Baghdad's desire to be viewed as an indispensable Iranian ally in the Arab world. As Iran and Saudi Arabia are embroiled in a rivalry for hegemony over large sections of the Middle East, Iraqi Shiite policymakers view their scathing criticisms of Saudi foreign policy as a tacit display of allegiance to Iran.

The Iraqi government's disagreement with Saudi Arabia on Hezbollah's role in Middle East security demonstrates how criticizing Riyadh can strengthen Iraq-Iran ties. On March 11, Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jafaari made a public defense of Iran's Lebanese ally Hezbollah's contribution to the anti-ISIS struggle, which was met with disapproval from Saudi policymakers.

Jafaari's description of Hezbollah as a "resistance" group dealt a blow to Riyadh's attempts to rally the Arab League around the idea that Hezbollah is a "terrorist" group. By endorsing Iran's position on the symbolically important issue of Hezbollah's status, Iraq demonstrated its willingness to defy Saudi Arabia's hegemony over the Arab League, and bolstered its credibility as an intelligence provider to Iran on Tehran's joint operations with Hezbollah in Syria.

The Iraqi government has also condemned Saudi Arabia's interferences in Iraq's domestic politics to win Iran's trust. Senior Iraqi officials have criticized Saudi Arabia's alliance-building efforts with Iraqi Sunni tribes, claiming that Riyadh's actions are inflaming sectarian tensions in Iraq. On June 30, the Iraqi government condemned the Saudi monarchy's "repeated interference Iraq's internal affairs," after Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir urged Abadi to disband Hashd al-Shaabi, a Shiite militia group. In late August, the Iraqi Foreign Ministry's also called for the removal of Saudi ambassador to Iraq Thamer al-Sabhan after al-Sabhan scathingly criticized Iranian military interference in Iraq.

Iraq's unequivocal anti-Saudi foreign policy identity has underscored its importance as a strategic asset for Tehran. Iran has rewarded the Iraqi government with provisions of $100-200 million in annual aid, despite pervasive state corruption and the Iraqi military's long history of misappropriating foreign assistance.

Second, Saudi Arabia's arms provisions to anti-Assad forces in Syria have contributed to the escalation of hostilities between Baghdad and Riyadh. Even though Syria's Baathist government contributed to sectarian violence in Iraq after the 2003 war by allowing free passage for Sunni militants, most Iraqi Shiite policymakers have concluded that Assad's retention of power in Syria is critical for the success of Iraq's struggle against the Islamic State (ISIS).

Since late 2015, the Iranian military has recruited thousands of Iraqi Shiites to fight on Assad's behalf in Syria. Even though these Shiite troops are officially labeled as volunteers, the movement of Iraqi personnel to Syria has received tacit support from Abadi's government. Iraq has also assisted Assad by sharing intelligence with Damascus's principal allies, Iran and Russia, on ISIS's activities in Syria. Iraq's actions have antagonized Riyadh, because Iraqi military personnel have participated in missions, that have targeted the pro-Saudi Free Syrian Army, and Sunni rebels in northwestern Syria armed by Saudi Arabia.

Opposing Saudi-backed rebel forces in Syria has helped Abadi strengthen Iraq's relations with nations that believe that Saudi Arabia is sponsoring terrorism in Syria. Russia has been particularly willing to reward Abadi for his loyalty to Assad's regime. In February 2016, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin visited Baghdad and pledged to increase Moscow's shipments of air defense technology to Iraq.

Since Rogozin's meeting, Russia has also increased its investment in the Iraqi economy, expressed openness to participation in a Syria-style anti-ISIS campaign in Iraq, and sided with Iraq in its oil production dispute with Saudi Arabia. Therefore, even though Iraq's involvement in Syria has indirectly placed it in a military conflict with Saudi Arabia, Abadi has gained critical international support for his government that will expedite Iraq's long-term economic development and bolster its political stability prospects.

Third, Iraq's increasingly critical attitude towards Saudi foreign policy aims to uniting Iraqi Shiites around Abadi's government. As many Shiite Iraqi policymakers have criticized Abadi for his failure of his governance reforms, Abadi's adoption of a hardline anti-Saudi foreign policy is a populist concession to these disaffected Shiites.

The Iraqi government's decision to push for the removal of al-Sabhan as Saudi ambassador was instigated, at least partially, by popular pressure. The hashtag "Thamer al-Sabhan is Iraq's enemy" went viral on Iraqi social media websites. Al-Sabhan's allegations that the Iranian government was plotting to assassinate him also stoked virulent anti-Saudi sentiments amongst Iraqi Shiites. Abadi has escalated his anti-Saudi foreign policy in tandem with these sentiments, despite the potential for backlash amongst Riyadh-aligned Iraqi Sunni groups like Mosul-based al-Shammar tribe.

Anti-Saudi propaganda has also become a lot more mainstream in Baghdad in recent months. Anti-Saudi Shiite activists in Iraq have released posters comparing the Saudi flag design to the Israeli Star of David, described the Saudi royal family as "evil progeny," and accused the Saudi monarchy of state sponsorship of terrorism. As discontent with Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen and anti-Iranian foreign policy is widespread amongst Iraqi Shiites, Abadi's anti-Saudi foreign policy agenda could bolster his support amongst Iraqi Shiites heading into the 2018 Iraqi parliamentary elections.

The recent escalation of hostilities between Iraq and Saudi Arabia has been triggered by disagreements over Syria, Iranian foreign policy and the classification of terrorist groups. The Iraqi government's willingness to confront Saudi Arabia has helped Baghdad forge an alliance with Russia, encouraged Iran to bolster aid to the Iraqi military and could strengthen Abadi's popular support amongst Shiites. Barring a massive upsurge in sectarian violence by Iraqi Sunnis or a Saudi military retaliation against Abadi's government, hostility towards Riyadh is likely to be a defining feature of Iraqi foreign policy for years to come.

Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony's College, University of Oxford. He is also a journalist who writes regularly for the Washington Post, Diplomat magazine and Huffington Post. He can be followed on Facebook at Samuel Ramani and on Twitter at samramani2.