Saudi Arabia is stepping up cooperation with Iraq’s government to secure its northeastern flank. The goal is to contain and counter the Iranian presence in Baghdad, boosting economic and commercial ties, and the visit of the Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi to Riyadh on March 31, 2021, is a fundamental piece of the new relationship status between the two countries.
At a strategic level, the Saudis want to prevent missile and drone attacks from the Iraqi territory against the kingdom and its interests in the Gulf. This comes as pro-Iran Shia armed groups in Iraq have increased threats and propaganda against Riyadh, leading Saudi Arabia to work to reduce fears of ballistic encirclement.
In fact, as the Yemeni Houthis’ attacks targeting the southwestern flank of the kingdom and, to a lesser extent, the Red Sea waterways have risen since 2020 in frequency and accuracy, the Saudis are unable to cope with security menaces and instability also at their northeastern side.
In the last three years, Saudi Arabia and Iraq have invested in economic and commercial cooperation: Since 2018, Riyadh has planned investments in industry (Najaf), in the private sector (Baghdad) and it is exploring cooperation in oil, gas and civilian infrastructures, as well as in agriculture (Basra and Anbar). This is the path chosen by Riyadh to build confidence in Iraq to then try to carve out spaces for security cooperation in the name of counterterrorism.
After a closure of nearly thirty years, the Arar border crossing (in Anbar governorate) was reopened in November 2020. Saudi Arabia plans to build another border crossing towards the Najaf province, which would increase trade and tourism linked to religious pilgrimages and archaeological sites. Along the Saudi-Iraqi border there is a second built land crossing, Jumaimah, in Muthanna governorate.
The enhancement of the Saudi-Iraqi Coordination Council was at the center of a phone call in January 2021 between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud and Iraqi President Barham Salih. In February 2021, the Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Falah Al Hajraf, travelled to Baghdad to discuss several topics, following the Memorandum of Understanding signed in 2019. At the top of the list was the common fight against jihadi terrorism, how to boost economic relations and the supply of electricity to the Iraqi state.
The Gulf scenario is in flux: the Saudi approach in Iraq takes this into account, trying to enhance alliances and expand cooperation in yet another time of transition. As Tehran and Baghdad had to wait for the outcome of the US presidential elections in 2020 to plan their foreign policy for 2021, the new US President, Joe Biden, is now waiting – like Riyadh – for more watershed dates in the Middle East: June and October 2021. This is when the Iraqis (October) and the Iranians (June) will go to the polls for, respectively, parliamentary and presidential elections, which could empower hardliner voices ready to reject the post-2003 confessional system of power built by the Americans (in Iraq), and a moderate presidency (in Iran).
In this scenario, recent attacks against Saudi Arabia’s territory show the vulnerability of its northeastern flank, although pro-Iranian Iraqi armed groups were not officially behind them.“We will not allow any attack on the kingdom”, stated PM Kadhimi during his recent Saudi visit. On March 7, 2021, a Saudi Aramco facility at Ras Tanura was attacked with a drone, provoking a fire that was brought under control. Shrapnel from a ballistic missile also fell next to an Aramco residential compound in Dhahran. Claiming the attack, the Houthi military spokesman Yahya Sarea stated that drones and missile attacks were launched across the border with the kingdom, although directed toward the East.
On January 23, 2021, Saudi Arabia intercepted a “hostile air target” on Riyadh. The Saudis attributed the launch to the Houthis, although a new, and still unknown, Iraqi Shia group, Alwiya Alwaad Alhaq, claimed responsibility, threatening to make Saudi Arabia the “playground for drone and missile attacks”, as well as threatening the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The episode recalled what occurred with the sophisticated air operation against Saudi Aramco plants at Abqaiq and Khurais (September 2019), this time without damages. In fact, that attacks were claimed by the Houthis, but the United Nations and the United States believe they were launched from Iran’s soil or from southern Iraq, not from Yemen: a case of plausible deniability.
From a media perspective, pro-Iranian Iraqi armed groups are increasingly attacking Saudi Arabia and the GCC countries for alleged interferences in Iraq. Due to this, the Ashab al-Kahf militia, a group that emerged after the US killing of Hashd al-Shaabi leader Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis in January 2020, stigmatized Saudi Arabia and Kuwait’s investments in Iraq, accusing the Gulf monarchies of aiming “to destroy what remains of the Iraqi economic security and perpetuate a state of instability in Iraq.” This militia had already offered rewards to Iraqis for reporting any information regarding the presence of investors and experts from Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the country. In 2020, the group also claimed responsibility for the attack targeting US forces at the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border.
Saudi Arabia’s economic and commercial strategy needs time to be successful and produce a security spill-over preventing further instability to its northeastern flank. In the meantime, Riyadh has to be wary about two dynamics. First, is the rise of Iraq’s “shadow militias”, which proliferated after the killings of General Qassem Soleimaini and of Al Muhandis, and to which Alwiya Alwaad Alhaq and Ashab al-Kahf are likely part.
These are rebranded or even fake armed groups close to Kata’ib Hezbollah, the leading pro-Iran armed group in Iraq founded by Al Muhandis. They are used by Iran (or the same Kata’ib Hezbollah) to cover terrorist actions – including some of the attacks on Saudi soil – exploiting plausible deniability. Second, is the growing communication and, possibly, operational coordination among Iran, Yemen’s Houthis and Kata’ib Hezbollah.
This is something that risks generating more intense security threats in the medium term to the Saudi northeastern flank, and to the whole Gulf region.
* Text updated on April 6, 2021