Saudi Arabia is trying to strengthen its ties to Iraq and counter Iranian influence by building bridges to Iraqi political leaders. On July 31, the Shiite leader of Iraq's al-Sadrite movement, Muqtada al-Sadr, landed in the Sunni kingdom and was received by Thamer al-Sabhan, the former Saudi ambassador to Iraq and now minister of state for the Persian Gulf region. Al-Sadr met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and the talks and the tone of his visit were described in both the Iraqi and Saudi news media as positive.
Al-Sadr's trip followed a Saudi invitation to the firebrand Shiite leader. It is al-Sadr's first visit to Saudi Arabia since 2006, and a media report said that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was informed of the visit. In an effort to deepen their political and military connections in the country, the Saudis reportedly have reached out to other Iraqi leaders. An Iraqi government source said that former Vice President Iyad Allawi and Ammar al-Hakim, the leader of the new National Wisdom movement, also have been invited to Riyadh. Al-Abadi has received an invitation as well. Iraqi Interior Minister Qasim al-Araji was recently in the kingdom to discuss border security.
As the Saudis move to oppose Iran, they are showing that they are willing to talk with nationalist leaders such as al-Sadr, who represents himself as independent from the influence of any greater power, including that of Iran and the Arab Gulf states. By engaging with al-Sadr, Saudi Arabia is trying to make a connection in Iraq and broaden Riyadh's political influence. For their part, many Iraqi political leaders, especially nationalist icons like al-Sadr, welcome the Saudi contact so long as it does not constrict their political decision-making and provides the desired financial support.