Just as Saudi Arabia is undertaking a brutal crackdown on its Shia minority, its influential crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, welcomed the controversial Iraqi Shia cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr, for a meeting.
Pictures of the encounter were splashed across social media yesterday inviting commentary from Saudis, Iraqis and, inevitably, from Qataris angry at the ongoing Saudi-led blockade of their nation.
Political savvy from the Saudi crown prince
Saudi opinion ranged from praise for bin Salman’s political nous to mockery of al-Sadr for what was seen as his exploitation by the Saudi prince.
#Mohammed_Bin_Salman meets Moqtada al-Sadr in front of the cameras and not in closed rooms. #Brothers he gave them a good welcome, the results of the meeting are evident on their faces #Saudi Arabia #Qatar
A great and shrewd decision from Mohammed bin Salman to meet #Moqtada_ al-Sadr, who recognizes the succession of Abu Bakr, Omar and Othman and exonerates the Sunnis from the blood of Hussein [the grandson of the Prophet, central to Shia faith]
صورة تعكس ذكاء السعوديه في التعامل مع العراق مقتدى الصدر شخصيه مؤثره في الساحه العراقيه وعلى عداء مع ايران ، محمد بن سلمان يُجيد لغة السياسه pic.twitter.com/O6I1I3ME6m— فيصل بن واصف السعدون (@faisal_w_s) July 30, 2017
A picture reflecting the intelligence of Saudi Arabia in dealing with Iraq. Moqtada al-Sadr, an influential figure in the Iraqi arena and on hostile terms with Iran. Mohammed bin Salman is fluent in the language of politics.
Al-Sadr: Divisive figure in Iraq
Meanwhile, Iraqis were predictably split into those who support al-Sadr and those who oppose him.
A militia leader who has rebranded himself in recent times as a popular opposition and anti-corruption leader, al-Sadr is a divisive figure in Iraq. A nationalist, his loyalties lie more with Iraq than with Shia Iran, endearing him to some.
This, in itself, is perhaps one of the reason bin Salman, a hardliner on Iran, invited al-Sadr to Saudi Arabia.
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However, as a figure who lead a sectarian insurgency in post-Saddam Iraq, many suggest that his change of tone is little more than a cynical attempt to gain public support and move closer to power.
Iraqi writer and researcher Hisham Alhashimi posted the following on his Facebook page:
It is very clear: #Sadr has the ability to activate popular diplomacy, and has a single goal that is nothing other than the unity of Iraq.
While another al-Sadr supporter tweeted a hashtag “[We are] Iraqis and the leader al-Sadr represents us” in response to the meeting.
Iraqi leader Moqtada al-Sadr, "his glory forever" with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman… #Iraqis_And_The_Leader_al-Sadr_Represents_Us
When Christian Iraqi-American journalist Steven Nabil shared the news on his popular Facebook page, some responses were enthusiastically pro-Sadr.
Whoever speaks badly of the gentleman (Moqtada al-Sadr) is really rubbish - If you had a brain you would think, why did Saddam [Hussein] kill his father? But we are a people whose thought is rubbish.
However, others branded him yet another Shia militia leader, like Qais al-Khazali, head of the Iran-back Kataeb Ahl al-Haq militia.
He knows how to sought things out - if al-Khazali had gone to Saudi Arabia they [Sadr supporters] would have had a go at him
Hypocrisy or an attempt to distract from plight of Saudi's Shias?
In Qatar, which has been subject to what has been described as a blockade by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt since the beginning of June, responses highlighted what they felt was bin Salman’s hypocrisy.
The four Arab states cut ties with Qatar after accusing it of supporting terrorism.
Yesterday al-Sadr accused Saudi Arabia of feeding "terrorism" and threatened it with a "revolution" and today he is in the arms of Mohammed Salman. And they say Qatar supports terrorism?
In the doctrine of Mohammed bin Salman: Sheikh Qaradawi terrorist while [Haider] Abadi [Iraqi prime minister], [Baha] Araji [Iraqi politician] and Moqtada al-Sadr are birds of Paradise. Have you seen such a farce?
Another Qatari suggested that the visit, coming that after revelations that Saudi Arabia is using Canadian armoured vehicles in a brutal crackdown in the country's Shia-majority eastern province, was not a coincidence.
The Shia-majority town of Al-Awamiya in the Al-Qatif region has reportedly been under siege by state security forces since May. Reports have suggested that unarmed civilians are being shot and killed in the town, while others have been “disappeared.”
The Sunni regime claims that they are fighting “terrorists” who are threatening security in the state.
احس هم محاصرين ... للعلم محمد بن سلمان يستنجد بمقتدى الصدر لحل أزمة شيعة القطيف— QATAR بوخالد QATAR (@saddman533) July 30, 2017
I feel like these blockaders… Mohammed bin Salman is seeking out the help of Moqtada al-Sadr to solve the Qutayf Shia crisis
An estimated 10-15% of the Saudi population belongs to the Shia sect, but they have faced systematic persecution since the founding of the fundamentalist Wahhabi-Sunni kingdom.
A statement issued by al-Sadr’s office following the meeting expressed hope that the visit will ease sectarian tensions in the Arab Islamic world, according to Saudi outlet Asharq al-Awsat.
Perhaps it was bin Salman’s hope that hosting a well-known Shia figure might distract away from the Saudi government’s exploitation of those very sectarian tensions at home.
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