Saudi engagement with Iraqi Shias stirs talk of opening with Iran

Al-Monitor | Ali Hashem: On May 2, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman (now the crown prince) said in a television interview that dialogue with Iran was impossible due to Iranians’ belief in the Shia Messiah. “Their stance is that the awaited Mahdi will come, and they need to create a fertile environment for the arrival of the awaited Mahdi, and they need to take over the Islamic world,” bin Salman said when he was deputy crown prince. He then asked, “Where are the common points that we might be able to reach an understanding on with this regime?”

Almost three months later, on July 31, the crown prince received in the western port city of Jeddah prominent Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Sadr is the leader and founder of what used to be called the Mahdi Army — named after the same Shia Messiah mentioned above whose reappearance Sadr believes in. The Iraqi cleric has also publicly expressed harsh views of Saudi Arabia. In 2016, he reacted to the execution of Saudi Shiite dissident cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr by calling on Saudi Shiites to take to the streets and by describing the authorities in the kingdom as “Daesh [Islamic State] rascals.”

Despite these sectarian rants, neither Salman nor Sadr found it difficult to meet and pose for pictures as they discussed “issues of common interests,” according to the Saudi state news agency. The meeting was once again more proof that sectarianism in the Middle East is only a thin veil that covers the heart of the current strife in the region, namely politics. This is what brought Sadr to Saudi Arabia and prompted the Saudis to open their arms and welcome him via their former ambassador to Iraq, Arab Gulf Affairs Minister Thamer al-Sabhan, who was once seen by the Iraqi authorities as persona non grata.

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