Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Bahrain remain the main points of entanglement between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iraq is Iran’s backyard while Yemen is Saudi Arabia’s. Lebanon, Syria and Bahrain are areas of balanced engagement; Iran has the upper hand in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia in Bahrain; Syria remains a contested ground, though Saudi Arabia is said to have limited its role there.
The regional map of control prompted some to predict that Saudi Arabia’s alleged use of Iraqi mediation to engage with Iran was a clear indication the Gulf kingdom was conceding to Iran and that the clash between the two bitter rivals was coming to an end. Yet this isn’t the case, and Iraq is a good example in this regard.
When Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and later Araji visited Saudi Arabia in July, the visits were regarded as surprising. Speculation at that time didn’t go far with respect to Saudi Arabia’s role inside Iraq, but rather was focused on Iraq’s role in bridging ties between Riyadh and Tehran. The same happened when prominent Iraqi leader Muqtada al-Sadr made an unexpected visit to Jeddah on July 31, meeting the Saudi crown prince and other officials.
Once again, thoughts and analysis went to Iranian-Saudi ties, and the regional context helped in boosting the speculation. Yet events that took place later suggest there might be a different answer to the big question as to what was behind Sadr’s visit to Saudi Arabia.