Report

Tillerson Notches Rare Diplomatic Win With Saudis and Iraq

After decades of tension and years of U.S. prodding, Riyadh and Baghdad are mending fences.

Saudi King Salman, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attend a meeting of the Saudi Arabia-Iraq Coordination Council in Riyadh on Oct. 22. (Alex Brandon/AFP/Getty Images)
Saudi King Salman, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attend a meeting of the Saudi Arabia-Iraq Coordination Council in Riyadh on Oct. 22. (Alex Brandon/AFP/Getty Images)

Last weekend, on a trip to the Middle East, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson presided over what may turn out to have been a landmark meeting between Iraqi and Saudi leaders — one that signals a notable rapprochement between two longtime adversaries.

The event, cloaked behind the nondescript name of the “Saudi Arabia-Iraq Coordination Council,” was a marked opening in an otherwise frosty relationship. Though the concrete results were minimal — including some smiling photos and a handful of promises publicized by the Iraqi government to deepen economic ties — the symbolism of an Iraqi prime minister making the trip to Saudi Arabia was significant.

Riyadh severed diplomatic ties with Baghdad after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, sparking fears of an Iraqi lunge at Saudi oil fields. After the war, Saudi policy focused on containing further Iraqi ambitions. Relations remained strained even after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Until this year, a Saudi foreign minister hadn’t visited Iraq since 1990.

Now, Saudi King Salman and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi are smiling due to a surprising combination of factors: the exit of Barack Obama, who’d angered Saudis with his olive branch to Iran; the generational change in Saudi leadership and a fresh foreign policy for Riyadh; and some surprisingly aggressive diplomacy by Tillerson and company.

The meeting, and the broader thawing it seems to signal, was at heart about two things. First, Saudi Arabia wants to lead a strong group of Arab states to counter what it sees as Iran’s malign influence; burying the hatchet with Baghdad is a way to create a bigger bloc. And second, Iraq, stung by nearly three years of cheap oil prices and warfare, is eager for help with oil and gas development and foreign assistance rebuilding after the defeat of the Islamic State.

For Saudi Arabia, the standard-bearer of Sunni pushback against Shiite Iran, the mini-summit marks a shift in policy to create an even broader group of like-minded states, said Maria Fantappie, an Iraq expert at the International Crisis Group.

“On the part of the crown prince [Mohammad bin Salman], there is a shift toward the utilization of ‘Arab identity,’ rather than Sunni identity, to gain regional leverage over the Iranians,” Fantappie said.

This suits Abadi, a Shiite who has sought to portray himself as an Arab nationalist leader in a sea of sectarian alternatives, counterbalancing links with Iran, for example, with deeper ties to Egypt. This gives the Saudis a way to embrace Iraq and play the Arab card at the same time.

“They can enter Iraq in a way that leverages not just sect but Arabism and nationalism,” Fantappie said.

The United States had prodded the two sides to make amends for years, and outreach by Stuart Jones, the former acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, and counter-Islamic State envoy Brett McGurk had yielded some promising results. Last weekend’s meeting was preceded by the reopening of a strategic border crossing and the restart (after 27 years) of direct flights between Riyadh and Baghdad. “They teed it up,” said a congressional foreign-policy aide familiar with the negotiations.

But the Saudis were wary of Obama, who spent years reaching out to Iran and eventually signed a contentious nuclear deal with Tehran in 2015. With the arrival of President Donald Trump in the White House and a former oil executive at Foggy Bottom, the Saudis were more receptive, officials say.

“This is one of the things that people say Tillerson was really good on. He worked very hard with the Saudis to convince them that their long-standing policy toward Iraq was wrong,” said Kenneth Pollack, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former intelligence official focused on Iraq.

“This is something that we’ve been working on for a long time, and it was Secretary Tillerson who gave it a solid push,” a longtime State Department official told Foreign Policy. “Getting the Saudis on board to assist with economic reconstruction in Iraq was critical.”

Now, the official said, “the Saudis have a lot more trust in the Trump administration to do what they wanted on the Iran front.”

Tillerson was also able to use already established relationships in the kingdom from his time running ExxonMobil to seal the deal. “He didn’t have to spend months building relationships. That was already there,” the same official said.

In February, Tillerson canceled a meet-and-greet at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico to call Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, urging him to visit Baghdad as a sign of goodwill and commitment to the counter-Islamic State effort. Jubeir made the trip the same month. Later, at their first meeting during the G-20 summit in Germany over the summer, Tillerson followed up on the outreach and continued to push the Saudis to engage. 

For the United States, bringing the two countries closer together is less about building coalitions and more about rebuilding. Iraq has been battling the Islamic State for years in its territory and needs plenty of help restoring its electrical grid, reconstructing destroyed neighborhoods, and improving its oil infrastructure.

For Baghdad, the lure of Saudi investment was the biggest takeaway from the high-profile meeting. The Iraqi government highlighted agreements in five areas, including Saudi investment in Iraqi energy and gas infrastructure, and work to reduce trade barriers and boost agricultural exports.

“The kind of engagement that the government is looking for is business and trade, not just the political meetings,” an Iraqi official said.

Capitalizing on the meeting, and creating a genuine rapprochement, however, is a different matter. Tillerson’s anti-Iran messages during the rest of his tour didn’t sit well in Baghdad, and the Saudis have so far remained silent on commitments made over the weekend.

“The mere fact that they engaged is significant,” said the congressional aide, “but it doesn’t mean anything in terms of sending this or that, or doing this or that on the ground.”

Rhys Dubin is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Before coming to FP, he worked for The Daily Star in Beirut covering defense, security, and Lebanese politics. His previous work and research includes time spent in Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia.

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