Is a Baghdad-Riyadh Axis Emerging?

Published November 8th, 2022 - 09:08 GMT
Arabic hospitality

Having a common border of more than 800 kilometers, Iraq and Saudi Arabia's relations witnessed a wave of tension, chaos, mutual accusations, conflicts, ambassadors' departure, and diplomatic crises, and the return of excellent relations. For example, although the relations between Saudi Arabia and Iraq were good in the eighties, since 1990, with Iraq's attack on Kuwait, it became bad, and then it was in a minimal state.

Despite the differences between Baghdad and Riyadh, these worsened after 2003 and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. From the point of view of many in Saudi Arabia, the American attack created a power vacuum in Iraq and the country was handed over to Iran. Although former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki visited Saudi Arabia in 2006 and restored some of the diplomatic relations, bilateral challenges in relations, such as the accusations of Iraqi officials, actually took Saudi-Iraq relations to their worst stage until (2015).

Since 2015, with the new leaders coming to power in Saudi Arabia and the election of the country's ambassador in Baghdad, and Haider al-Abadi's efforts to reduce the tension between the two countries, the end of the 25-year stagnation in relations has become apparent, and despite some periodic challenges, cooperation has actually strengthened. In the last two years, excellent diplomatic contacts and the will of the two countries' political leaders have led to further strengthening and revival of relations.

Open door, and moderate approach in foreign policy

Although many in Saudi Arabia considered the United States and its allies responsible for expanding Iran's influence in Iraq. the adoption of a new and moderate approach in Iraq by Saudi Arabia in the past six years has been accompanied by Baghdad's efforts to strengthen diplomacy at high levels. It also seems that one of the strategies of Saudi Arabia to compete with Iran in the region is to cooperate more widely with America in Iraq and strengthen relations with Baghdad.

In the past years, Iraq's open-door policy, along with the approach of creating a balance between partners and not being included in regional and international orientations, has provided Iraq with more benefits and opportunities and has reduced threats.

Political realism in Saudi Arabia's foreign policy towards Iraq and passing from the previous "ideal" is welcomed by many in Baghdad. It seems that Riyadh sees Iraq as its strategic depth and intends to cooperate more with Baghdad in political, parliamentary, and other fields. Although a part of Iraqis emphasize Iraq's Mesopotamian identity, Iraq is a member of the Arab League, and many in Saudi Arabia also defend the necessity of Iraq's complete return to the Arab countries.

On the other hand, while many people in Iraq seem to support Baghdad's efforts in dealing with extremism and terrorism (ISIS, etc.), they see the importance of respecting Iraq's sovereignty and territorial integrity. For Riyadh, the non-cooperation of the Iraqi groups and the Houthis in Yemen, and trying to avoid the Iraq situation's effects on Saudi society, is also important.

In addition, Saudi Arabia's emphasis on "maintaining the sovereignty of Iraq" can be seen as a form of defense of Baghdad against the approach of actors such as Turkey in Iraq. In this context, efforts to coordinate the political, security, and military relations between Iraq and Saudi Arabia have received more attention.

 Also, the geopolitical features of the two neighboring countries, along with the opening of more consulates, negotiations for the cancellation of visas, and the pursuit of common national interests, show the expansion of political and security relations, and the achievement of security and stability in the region for both countries.

In addition, the peace of the region is in favor of the stability of Iraq, and by adopting mediating approaches such as trying to reduce the tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Iraq tries to create a space for dialogue to protect the interests of all actors. Also, it seems that the type of coordination between Riyadh and Baghdad has expanded in the field of regional and international organizations.

 Cultural cooperation

Identity ties between the two countries are part of the reasons for the common trend between the two countries. In fact, in the past years, Riyadh has paid more attention to the approach of developing relations based on the principle of Arab-Islamic brotherhood, and strong historical, and cultural ties. Expanding the consulates of the two countries in non-capital cities can expand cultural communication, remove previous tension and taboos, and promote people-to-people communication.

Strengthening the tourism sector, especially religious tourism is being taken more seriously in the two countries, and Iraq is now the second country with the most Hajj pilgrims (Umrah) after Indonesia. Also, in the past few years, Riyadh seems to be trying to consolidate its soft power in Iraq after years of absence by supporting NGOs and research institutions, supporting media networks such as the launch of MBC, media, etc.

Expansion of economic and commercial cooperation
From 2017 onwards, with the establishment of a "coordinating council" to develop relations to a "strategic level" and the signing of (13) agreements and memorandums of understanding, the opening of the Arar border, the restart of the airline (after about three decades), the economic relations between Iraq and Saudi Arabia has changed. In addition to allocating (1.5) billion dollars by Riyadh to Iraqi reconstruction projects at the Kuwait conference (2018), approaches such as using economic tools including trade, infrastructure development, and the presence of the private sector have helped to build more trust in relations.

This is while, in the medium term, Iraq needs continuous investment from actors like Saudi Arabia for reconstruction, and prioritizing the reconstruction of the country plays an important role in Iraq's foreign policy. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia is interested in diversifying its sources of income in line with the 2030 vision.

In this regard, the ability of Saudi companies in the petrochemical and oil industries is good, while Baghdad has been seeking support for non-oil sources of income for years. Also, the relatively large market of the two countries has good economic potential in various fields and complements each other's needs. For example, while the gas and electricity crisis are one of the most important challenges in Iraq, the electricity connection with Saudi Arabia and the "electricity supply" agreement are also beneficial to both sides.

In addition, the two countries have a positive view on the opening of commercial affiliates, signing agreements, joint investment in various fields, a 3 billion dollar joint fund, the opening of waterways and new flight destinations, increasing exchanges, increasing the activities of the coordination council and activating the memorandums and previous agreements.

At the same time, Riyadh is seeking to become Iraq's largest trade partner in the region by implementing projects such as connecting Basra to Saudi Arabia and reactivating the previous joint pipeline. The development of border crossings, increasing the growth of the volume of investments in Saudi Arabia, and the percentage growth of the volume of commercial exchanges in recent years can be very important steps in this way. In addition, cooperation and participation in the form of organizations such as OPEC and OPEC+ can be an opportunity to provide mutual benefits in the fields of energy and to create stability and guarantee the stability of the global oil markets, far away from contradictory and opposite positions and oil policies.

Obstacles ahead

The economy is now the most prominent and important area of ​​cooperation between the two countries, but increasing the scope of relations requires the activation of previous agreements, guaranteeing and quick implementation of suspended agreements and contracts.

In the past years, many in Iraq and Saudi Arabia have paid attention to the increase in the level of economic relations. In fact, the economy can help to deepen relations in other areas such as leadership, defense, and security relations.

In the meantime, it seems that Iraq's biggest priority in interacting with Saudi Arabia is mostly economic incentives, while Saudi Arabia's biggest priority in relations is economic development along with political-security interests.

In fact, in the past years, the revival of economic and trade relations between Iraq and Saudi Arabia has been excellent, but the further expansion of political and security relations to strategic levels and strategic alliance requires solving challenges and differences, identifying differences, and respecting views, and at the same time trying to strengthen security and stability in the region.

In the meantime, considering the approach of the new Iraqi Prime Minister, Mohammed Shia' Al Sudani, on the importance of strengthening bilateral relations between Iraq and Saudi Arabia and congratulating King Salman, the King of Saudi Arabia, for his election, it seems that in the short and medium term, the process of expanding economic relations will continue.  Although the expansion and acceleration of political, geopolitical, and security relations is probably not the same as in the economic field, the expansion of economic relations can contribute to the development of cooperation in other dimensions.


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