Few goods transit the desert border between the Middle East’s two biggest oil producers, and Saudi authorities have built a fence to help ensure that political instability in Iraq doesn’t cross over either.
Dysfunctional ties between the countries have come into focus as a wave of violence sweeps Iraq, turning it into another arena where Saudi interests are diverging from those of the U.S. Fighting is centered in Anbar province, bordering Saudi Arabia, where Sunni fighters tied to al-Qaeda are rebelling against the Shiite-led government of Nouri al-Maliki, supported by Iran.
As the Iraqi army attacks the militants in Anbar, it has been targeted elsewhere in the country. A suicide bomber killed at least 21 people at a military recruiting center in Baghdad today, the Associated Press reported, citing Iraqi police. Late yesterday, another suicide bomber killed 13 army recruits north of Baghdad, Al Jazeera said.
The Saudi view is that Maliki shares blame for the slide into violence, because he’s “aggravating the feelings of marginalization that some Iraqi Sunnis have long complained about, and that are at the root” of the current conflict, said Fahad Nazer, a political analyst at Vienna, Virginia-based intelligence analyst JTG, and a former analyst for the Saudi embassy in Washington.
By contrast, the U.S. has offered to help Maliki, and so has Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main regional rival. That shows how far the Saudi-American alliance has drifted since the early days of the Syrian civil war, when a similar sectarian divide saw the Saudis and U.S. on one side and Iran on the other.
While there’s no indication that the Sunni fighters in Anbar, led by the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or ISIL, are getting Saudi support, the wider Sunni community in Iraq is looking to Riyadh for assistance. Tariq Hashemi, Iraq’s Sunni former vice president, last month called on Saudi Arabia for help.
Iraq’s Sunnis “face two main problems,” he said in interview with Al Jazeera. “We lack a unifying project and a country that supports our cause.”
Saudi-Iraq ties have been strained since the U.S. overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 led three years later to the election of Maliki’s government, the first led by Shiites to rule Iraq.
Saudi Arabia has no embassy in Baghdad, and there’s little commercial contact. In 2012, Iraq traded more with Thailand than it did with the kingdom to its south, even though Saudi Arabia is the Arab world’s largest economy, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The border between the countries is closed except during the annual Hajj pilgrimage, according to Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Interior.
In November, Saudi authorities said six mortar shells landed in an uninhabited desert area of the kingdom near the Iraq border. An Iraqi Shiite group claimed responsibility.
“The Saudis had serious reservations about the U.S. invasion, fearing that Saddam’s removal would create a power vacuum that would be filled by Iran,” Nazer said. “In the eyes of many, those fears were not unwarranted.”
That sentiment has been echoed by Saudi officials. In October, Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former head of the kingdom’s intelligence department, said that Iran’s “meddling” was the “cause of the daily killings and suffering that the Iraqi people are enduring.”
The violence has increased this month as ISIL and other Sunni fighters took over Fallujah and nearby towns in Anbar. Maliki yesterday called on local tribes to unite against the “terrorists” and drive them out.
Iraqi forces appear to have used “indiscriminate” mortar fire in civilian areas in their effort to dislodge militants in Anbar, Human Rights Watch said today. “Unlawful methods of fighting by all sides have caused civilian casualties and severe property damage,” while the government blockade of Fallujah and Ramadi has resulted in limited access to food, water, and fuel for the population, it said.
Iraq’s instability brings sectarian conflict closer to the oilfields of the Persian Gulf, a region that holds almost half the world’s reserves. It raises concerns of another civil war in Iraq, OPEC’s second-biggest producer, reviving the Sunni-Shiite conflict that followed the U.S. invasion.
“Energy infrastructure thus far has been largely shielded from the recent surge in violence, but the risks to the oil sector are rising,” Barclays Plc wrote on Jan. 6.
Iraqi output increased by 100,000 barrels a day to 3.2 million barrels last month, the most since August, according to a Bloomberg survey. It pumped more crude by increasing links to wells in its predominately Shiite south.
Meanwhile, the violence in the largely Sunni west of Iraq is being fanned by the war in neighboring Syria. Saudi leaders have signaled they are growing impatient with the Western-backed rebels there, and may shift support to more Islamist groups fighting to oust Bashar al-Assad.
Iraq officials have said they’re suspicious of the kingdom’s intent.
Maliki said in November that Saudi Arabia was the only country in the Middle East that “has chosen” not to be a friend of Iraq. He said in an interview with Al Arabiya the same month the U.S. was mediating to repair ties between the two countries.
Sunni tribes in Anbar once worked with U.S. forces against al-Qaeda, and the Iraqi government says many support its fight against ISIL. Some of the tribes, though, have ties with Saudi Arabia and little confidence in the Shiites now ruling in Baghdad.
“As much as the tribal leaders hate al-Qaeda, they don’t trust Maliki either,” said Crispin Hawes, managing director of the research firm Teneo Intelligence in London. “Maliki fundamentally doesn’t believe that the Sunni population is ever going to be on his side, and he doesn’t want them to be.”