The visit to Saudi Arabia by Iraq’s influential Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr was welcomed by the Trump administration on Monday, and is seen by experts as a significant development for regional stability and countering Iran’s expansionism.
The black-turbaned cleric sent a message to several quarters by meeting Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah on Sunday. Mr Al Sadr's last visit to the kingdom in 2006 was centred on the Hajj, but his latest one is very political in nature and comes at a critical time in Saudi-Iraqi relations.
Commenting on the visit, a US state department official told The National that "both Saudi Arabia and Iraq are solid partners of the United States" and "we welcome strong relations between the two countries and continue to support their efforts and outreach in this regard".
Ever since 2003, successive US administrations have pushed for more Saudi engagement with the new Iraq, and the past two months have seen three high-level Iraqi visits to Saudi Arabia - by prime minister Haider Al Abadi, his interior minister Qasim Al Araji, and now by Mr Al Sadr.
James Jeffrey, a former US ambassador to Iraq and Turkey, attached great significance to Mr Al Sadr’s visit.
Editorial: Al Sadr visit underscores the emerging Saudi foreign policy doctrine
“It is very important, and a sign that Saudis realise the most important fact about the Middle East is that Iran is on the march, it has not been stopped,” said Mr Jeffrey, now a fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Iranian influence “will create more Sunni extremist terrorism if it’s not stopped by a regional order that America, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel and others are supporting,” he said.
More broadly, the Shiite cleric's meeting with the Saudi crown prince indicates the realisation by Riyadh “that this is not a Sunni versus Shia struggle and that the problem is not people’s religion but this expansion of state system in Iran using asymmetrical means to build up militias and undercut regimes,” Mr Jeffrey said.
He said this pattern in Iran’s approach was seen in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and Syria, where Tehran has sought to arm and fund non-state actors.
The Saudi minister of state for Gulf affairs Thamer Al Subhan, a former ambassador to Iraq, greeted Mr Al Sadr at the airport and tweeted on Monday that "Sunni hardline and Shiite hardline doesn't build nations or societies. The language of moderation, forgiveness and dialogue is what should prevail to accomplish our greater interests."
By receiving Mr Al Sadr, countering Iran is once again at the heart of the Saudi strategy, according Mr Jeffrey. “They realise there is a very strong presence of Shia Islamic leaders in Iraq who do not want Iran to dominate ... there is a religious struggle of its own between Qum (Iran) and Najaf (Iraq) embodied by the Sadr family, one of the most respected families of Shia Islam.”
The Saudi crown prince's welcoming of Mr Al Sadr is recognition that the Iraqi cleric “has the most powerful popular movement not identified with Iranians in southern Iraq, and secondly he has a militia”.
“I can confirm that from when I was in Iraq, his group is seen by Sunni Arabs as most reasonable of the Shia militias,” he said.
Meeting the crown prince “enhances Saudi Arabia's role in Iraq, and bolster's Sadr's credibility in the region”.
Still, the counter-Iran push is “very late in the game”, said Mr Jeffrey, “not just by Saudi but also by the US administration who is still trying to figure out its policy on Iran.”
The Trump administration is distracted by “the shiny toy of fighting ISIL”, making it “hard to focus on bigger threat of Iran because that’s more serious”.
Mr Jeffrey said ISIL is a “walking corpse” and “the real threat is Iran”, adding: “The Trump administration understands this but doesn’t know policy yet.”
Saudi openness to Iraq helps US strategy to bring Baghdad into the regional fold and “acknowledge Iraq as a legitimate country” — something that had failed to materialise in the past 14 years, he said.
The visit also underscores regional stability, said Mr Jeffrey.
“Any day that [Iran’s military general] Qassem Suleimani looks at the TV and is unhappy, is a good day for security in region ... and looking at Moqtada Sadr meetings in Saudi will make him very unhappy.”