Saudi Arabia makes inroads in Iraq to curb Iranian influence
By DANA KHRAICHE AND SARAH ALGETHAMI | Bloomberg | Published: April 4, 2019
Saudi Arabia intends to invest $1 billion in development projects in Iraq and open a consulate in the capital, reversing a longstanding policy of disengagement there as it seeks to curb rival Iran's growing influence in the Middle East.
A Saudi ministerial and business delegation is in Iraq this week to discuss investment ideas for some of the kingdom's biggest companies, including oil giant Aramco, Saudi Basic Industries Corp. and the Maaden mining corporation, Saudi Commerce and Investment Minister Majid Al-Qasabi said in Baghdad. Memorandums of understandings will be signed in the near future, he said.
Riyadh will open a consulate in the Iraqi capital on Thursday and three others in different provinces at a later time to facilitate visa procedures, Qasabi said. It will also build a sports city as a "gift to Iraqis," he said at a joint news conference with Iraq's oil minister, Thamir Al-Ghadhban.
Saudi Arabia's pivot to Iraq is motivated by Riyadh's conclusion that shunning neighboring countries created a void quickly filled by Iran, said Sami Nader, director of Beirut-based Levant Institute. Predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran are vying for influence in the region as they fight proxy wars in Syria and Yemen.
Riyadh, which reopened an embassy in Baghdad in 2015 after a 25-year absence, is also seizing an opportunity that's opened over growing discontent in Iraq with Iran's clout. Protesters have been demonstrating against substandard services, corruption and poor governance, and last year in the southern city of Basra set fire inside the Iranian consulate.
The Saudi delegation visited Baghdad just a few weeks after Iran's President Hassan Rouhani met with officials there in an attempt to cement his country's influence in Iraq, which has been growing ever since the U.S. invasion of 2003 toppled President Saddam Hussein.