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Iraq and the 'Saudi question'

How much influence does the House of Saud hold over its neighbour? And how can it be influenced?
Last modified: 28 Jun 2014 20:05
Iraqis from across the political spectrum have accused Saudi Arabia of financing ISIL [AP]

A few days ago, I was sat in a news conference by the British foreign secretary, William Hague. An Iraq state TV journalist asked him a question concerning Britain's relations with "neighbouring countries", but It was clear that the journalist meant Saudi Arabia.

The implied question was whether the Brits could press Saudi over its role in Iraq.

Hague's answer was diplomatic to the core. He answered slowly and deliberately, as is his style, concentrating on the situation in Syria. It's an answer we've heard so many times from foreign diplomats.

The implied Saudi part, to me at least, seemed like it was studiously ignored. Perhaps I'm being uncharitable. Afterwards however I heard other Iraqi journalists complain that the UK wasn't doing enough to dissuade Saudi from pursuing a "negative role" and that they felt Hague had dodged the "Saudi question".

Perhaps for good reason. Saudi Arabia has long been a key ally of the UK. The relationship goes back to the First World War and the making of the modern Middle East.

But Saudi Arabia is also one of the most secretive and closed countries in the world. Press freedom doesn't exist and ‎policy eminates from the royal court of the king. Yet its reach is felt across the Middle East and here in Iraq it's controversial.

Ahmed al-Abiadh ‎is a political analyst in Sunni affairs. For him, the Saudi role has brought nothing but disappointment. "There are real and harmful indications of the involvement of Saudi Arabia in Iraq's internal affairs, whether directly or indirectly," he says.

Those negative ‎implications are now playing out violently across the northwest of the country, he says, as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and its allies continue their offensive.

"We see weaponry, equipment, supplies being seized by army forces during clashes, which are clearly from Saudi Arabia, not to mention fighters being killed who hold Saudi nationalities.

Meat in the sandwich

"Also the constant fiery statements from the Saudi foreign minister accusing the Iraqi government of being sectarian don't help. Then the Iraqi government fights back with sectarian language. Iraqi Sunnis are sandwiched in between."

That feeling of being "sandwiched" is clear on the streets of Baghdad. Shia militia checkpoints are now common on the streets and that has Sunnis nervous.

Wahda al-Jumaili is a Sunni MP from the Wataniya bloc. He says that sectarian politics allows Saudi Arabia to get a foothold in Iraq as a buffer to the Iranian influence.

He says the Shia-led Iraqi government deals in "double standards", and highlights only the "so-called negative role Saudi Arabia is playing in Iraq" while ignoring the "huge Iranian influence on Iraq's deteriorating security situation".

‎Jumaili is also clear on what needs to be done to stop the influence of both Saudi and Iran in Iraq and ultimately the danger of dividing the country.

"Our fight now is to get rid of ISIL and then seek to protect our borders. Our foreign policy with neighbouring countries needs to be more aggressive in order in ensure a stable Iraq by drying up the sources of terrorism."

That word "sources" is key. For at least two years now many Iraqis, of all political persuasions, have accused Saudi Arabia of financing and backing ISIL.

Officially the Saudis have outlawed the group and say it poses just as much of a threat to them as it does Syria and Iraq. But some aren't convinced.

One Western diplomatic source told me that the group circumvents official funding.

"What you see ISIL doing is not taking money officially from Saudi, but using, particularly in its early days, financing from individual Saudi sheikhs and from mosques. From there it was able to build a network in Syria, and now it's in Iraq. So while Saudi's may not officially fund and back it, Saudi citizens do."

And that leads me back to question the Iraqi journalist asked of the British foreign secretary. Can a country like Britain, or indeed the US, influence the Saudis to crack down on those that may fund groups like ISIL?

Given Saudis secretive and closed nature, one can only speculate how much influence the US and UK have. The Saudi question remains unanswered, and not just by the British foreign secretary.

Follow Imran Khan on Twitter: @ AJImran