It is not every day that a Saudi royal in white Wahhabi robes is seen in close-quarters conversation with a black-turbaned Shiite cleric. But this is what happened Wednesday, January 18, when King Abdullah, 82, received the 33-year old radical Iraqi Shiite cleric Ayatollah Moqtada Sadr at his gilded palace in Riyadh.
After leading two bloody revolts against US forces in Iraq, the Shiite cleric has lived in virtual hiding for the last two years. Before that, from 2003, he was on the run from the Americans who wanted to prosecute him for murdering Ayatollah Khoei, their designated leader for post-Saddam Iraq.
Not surprisingly, Moqtada Sadr looked ill at ease in his sumptuous surroundings. The Saudi king was his urbane self, even through his austere brand of Wahhabi Islam regards Shiites as no better than heretics.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Middle East sources, the encounter between these ill-assorted figures took place only because Abdullah is deeply worried.
He sees evolving next door, to the northeast of the oil kingdom, an autonomous pro-Tehran Shiite Iraqi state with a strong army and economy solidly grounded in the oilfields of southern Iraq. That entity already harbors large, lavishly-funded Iranian intelligence, terrorist and Revolutionary Guards Corps networks.
The Saudis feel menaced. The newly emerging state nullifies the barriers that kept the desert kingdom safe from its radical Shiite neighbor for half a century, the American military presence in the region, the Arab emirates and the Persian Gulf waterway. The latest turnabout in Iraqi history renders obsolete Riyadh’s traditional defensive measures against the designs of revolutionary Islamic Republic.
Abdullah is therefore reorienting his position. He has concluded that Riyadh has no choice but to compete with Tehran for influence in the Iraqi Shiite cities of Najef, Karbala and Baghdad. Three vehicles are available for this purpose:
The American presence in Iraq; Saudi clout with Iraqi Sunni Muslims, which can be held over Shiite heads and, finally, an alliance with prominent Shiite leaders.
The third option led Abdullah to the young radical Iraqi Shiite, after marking him down as the most important rising force in Iraq’s majority Shiite community. Banking partly on his eminent father, the Sadr has cultivated a strong inside track in the Shiite parliamentary faction voted in at the December 15 general election (whose results have still not been released).
The Saudis also note Sadr’s excellent connections in Tehran and the Iranian holy city of Qom, where he maintains a permanent embassy.
The Shiite cleric is plentifully supplied with funds by Tehran which maintains an Iranian intelligence colonel as a permanent fixture in his establishment.
Typically pragmatic by tradition, the Saudi throne, and King Abdullah in particular, prefers to maintain quiet dialogue with strong Middle East rivals rather than fighting them and treating them as enemies. He therefore sent diplomatic envoys to Baghdad, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, with a discreet invitation to Ayatollah Sadr to take advantage of the hajj for some quiet conversation in Riyadh.
In public, the Custodian of the Holy Places of Islam was extending the Shiite leader a courtesy welcome, the same as leaders of other official pilgrim delegations.
In fact, the two incongruous personalities, divided by faith and a half century-disparity in age, got on well enough. They agreed, according to our sources, to set up a sort of permanent clearing house for their exchanges. This mechanism will be managed by Saudi supreme intelligence coordinator Prince Bandar al Sultan. Of late, Abdullah has been increasingly charging the new coordinator, until recently Saudi ambassador to Washington, with sensitive missions.
It was also decided that Riyadh would not let Tehran stand alone as bankroller for Sadr and his organization, but would start sending him money in the form of donations for restoring the ancient mosques and shrines of Najef, Karbala and Baghdad. These donations would also cover a less sacred object, the renewal of Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia, which was seriously battered in the revolts it lost against the Americans in 2004.
The Saudis decided to start the relationship cautiously by sending him modest sums – no more than $3 to 5 million. They know all about the young Shiite cleric’s fickle nature, having watched him switch between secret pacts with all and sundry, from moderate Sunni groups to Sunni guerrilla factions allied with terrorists.
The tete a tete in the Riyadh palace opened a door for Saudi penetration into the inner core of Iraq’s Shiite ecclesiastic establishment and offers a means for counteracting the Iranian incursions that come ever closer to the Saudi border with Iraq.