Iraqi Prime Minister to visit Saudi Arabia at critical time
After initial hesitation, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi announced that he would visit Saudi Arabia for the first time since taking office in August 2014. The news of Abadi’s intention to visit Riyadh was first leaked days after the crisis between Saudi Arabia, Egypt and UAE and Qatar erupted. The timing was heavily criticized by commentators from the Prime Minister’s own Shia community, who called on Iraqi leaders to capitalize on the rift between two Sunni countries, in light of their own interests. Iran, Iraq’s predominantly Shia neighbor, has rejected the harsh measures put in place against Qatar.
For years Iraqi Shia politicians, most prominently former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, have attacked both Saudi Arabia and Qatar, equally accusing them of supporting anti-government Sunni groups. Al-Abadi took a different approach and was not vocal in criticizing Iraq’s gulf neighbors. In February, the Saudi Foreign Minister visited Baghdad to praise its government on their stance.
In April, Qatar sent a ransom of roughly half a billion dollars to an Iraqi Shia militia to secure the release of a kidnapped Qatari hunting party of 26 which included members of the ruling family. The hunters were released but the money was seized by Iraqi authorities. Last week, Abadi confirmed that the money is still in custody of the government and never reached another party. The way Qatar dealt with this ransom was a significant development in the build-up to the Qatar crisis, as it led to Saudi and its allies accusing Qatar of supporting Shia militias and Sunni radical groups in both Iraq and Syria.
The relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iraq’s Shia led government will not improve easily or quickly, but Al-Abadi’s visit is a step in that direction. The Iraqi Prime Minister had stated that he was against the blockade imposed on Qatar. Nevertheless his visit will still be scrutinized by his critics in Iraq, especially from his own Shia constituency. This is probably why he announced his visit to Saudi Arabia will be a part of a regional trip that will include a visit to Iran.
By: Rafid Jaboori