Some of the best news to come from the Middle East in a long time is the recent and long-overdue improvement in relations between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. It started in February, when Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir visited Baghdad—the first such visit since 1990—and continued with a number of subsequent contacts, including a meeting between Iraqi Interior Minister Qasim al-Araji and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) on July 19. Most striking of all was when Iraq’s Shiite firebrand cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, traveled to Riyadh for high level talks on improving bilateral ties with the Saudis on July 31.
As an Iraqi leader, Sadr has typically taken a hard nationalist—and sometimes even Shiite chauvinist—line. And although his relationship with Tehran is complicated owing to his independent power base and occasional appeal to a sense of Iraqi patriotism, he has been a critical Iranian ally for most of the post-Saddam Hussein era. His militia, Saraya al-Salam, continues to receive extensive support from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. For all those reasons, his meeting with the Saudis, Iran’s traditional Arab Sunni nemesis, was a surprise, to say the least.