Middle East Studies

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Saudi Arabia and Iraq as Friends and Enemies

Borders, Tribes and a Shared History

Joshua Yaphe is a senior analyst for the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), where he has focused on the Arabian Peninsula since 2009. He earned his Ph.D. in History from American University in Washington, D.C.

Saudi Arabia and Iraq have a shared history, as both friends and enemies at one and the same time, and their growth as modern nation-states must be understood in that joint context. This book establishes a new narrative and timeline for bilateral relations between the two countries, while examining the work of other Arab and Western scholars, in order to excavate the biases underlying so much previous work on this topic. In doing so, it proposes a new way of looking at state formation and boundaries in the Middle East, by showing how the interactions of regional neighbors left an indelible imprint on the domestic politics of one another.

The two different visions for managing the border that Saudi Arabia and Iraq developed in the 1920s generated mistrust on both sides, leading to a gradual process of estrangement that lasted through the 1950s and beyond. Ibn Saud made strenuous efforts to preserve the socio-economic ties that united the communities of southern Iraq with the Najd and, in turn, those efforts helped encourage a wave of Sunni Arab migrants from Iraq who helped build the Saudi state. Iraqi politicians and clerics attempted to use the issue of Ikhwan raids as a rallying cry for promoting their political agendas, thereby contributing to a growing sectarian discourse and undermining the nationalist rhetoric of the 1920 Revolution. The two countries had a remarkable and long-lasting impact on one another, even as they drifted farther and farther apart through mutual fear and suspicion.

Hardback ISBN: 978-1-78976-151-1
Hardback Price: £75 / $89.95
Release Date: March 2022
Page Extent / Format: 340 pp. 234 x 156 mm
Illustrated: Illustrated, including maps and facsimile documents






History and Historiography

Boundaries and Borderlands

Defining the Najd

Arab Nationalism and Pan-Arabism

Drawing the Border

Translations and Sources



The Pace of Diplomacy

Points of Contention

The Saudi Approach to Diplomacy




Force Structures and Administration

From Tactics to Strategy

Reassessing the Role of the Ikhwan




Life among the Tribes

Life among the Townspeople

Reconsidering Identity and Affiliation

Politics along the Border




Iraqi Shi’a and the Najd

Public Opinion and Populism

Friends of the Kingdom

Nationalism and Identity after the 1920 Revolution

The Early Formation of Sectarian Politics




Continuity and Change

Shared Narratives

Contrasting Perspectives




Too often, contemporary Arab history is recounted as the tale of single states struggling against misshapen and artificial borders. This book uses a wealth of primary sources to build a novel dual biography of Iraq and Saudi Arabia as co-evolving siblings. It shows how borders were not just sites of competition but also cooperation at the state and societal levels. It will surely change how we think about borders and state formation in the Middle East.
Ariel I. Ahram, author of War and Conflict in the Middle East and North Africa and Break all the Borders: Separatism and the Reshaping of the Middle East

This is an important missing link in the history of the Gulf region. Using British, Iraqi and Saudi original source materials, it explains how a complex Najdi identity – political, social, economic and religious – clashed with British imperial, Hashemite, and Iraqi elite interests. It answers the question of why Saudi Arabia has been a relatively stable state and Iraq a fractured one. The most stunning achievement is the integration of the sources and complex set of events into a coherent, readable narrative that illuminates the period.
Roby Barrett, author of The Greater Middle East and the Cold War: U.S. Foreign Policy under Eisenhower and Kennedy, and The Gulf and the Struggle for Hegemony: Arabs, Iranians, and the West in Conflict

This ground-breaking research is more than just a study of Saudi-Iraqi relations, as important as that is for the understanding of current affairs. This research demonstrates that today’s multiple disputes and conflicts in the Middle East trace their roots to how states influenced each other’s trajectory, in their bilateral relations as well as their regional and domestic policies. It is a must-read both for those with a keen interest in the Middle East and those grappling to understand the region’s confusing politics.
James M. Dorsey, author of Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, and The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer

“This book – clear and easy to read – breaks new ground. For forty years, the frontier between Iraq and Saudi Arabia was one of the major concerns of the leaders of both governments, and here we now have an account of the friction and diplomacy between the two, which throws light on the personalities involved and how they worked to resolve the issue. It’s a world away from modern Arabia, but here one enters the mindset of the people who created that world in the last century.
Michael Field, author of The Merchants: The Big Business Families of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, and the Arabian Ruling Family Trees and Government Charts

This book fills critical gaps. It provides invaluable insights into how the governments of Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Great Britain, and the peoples who lived in the border regions, negotiated the post-WWI/post-Ottoman political order and made critical choices that continue to shape both nations to this day. It discusses how the borders impacted the daily lives and politics of people living in communities situated hundreds of miles from the frontier. Equally importantly, it shows how the question of the border and the border populations shaped both nations’ political development in ways that have long been overlooked.
Sean Foley, author of Changing Saudi Arabia: Art, Culture & Society in the Kingdom, and The Arab Gulf States: Beyond Oil and Islam

The scholarship is superlative. The author has canvassed original documents and relied on Saudi and Iraqi memoirs to provide the reader with a reliable narrative. Thorough, and based on original documents, this genuine contribution to scholarship will become the standard-bearer for all research efforts that delve on ties between the two societies.
Joseph A. Kéchichian, author of Legal and Political Reforms in Sa‘udi Arabia, and Power and Succession in Arab Monarchies: A Reference Guide

The relationship between the two dominant Arab states in the Gulf remains as important today as it did a century before, when a new international order first emerged. Drawing upon unpublished British and Arab primary sources, this book sheds light on the contentious and nuanced relationship between Riyadh and Baghdad, as leaders struggled to craft new orders while addressing unsettled claims. This text fills a lacuna in the academic literature, which anyone hoping to possess an understanding of the region would do well to master.
Jeffrey R. Macris, author of The Politics and Security of the Gulf: Anglo-American Hegemony and the Shaping of a Region, and Deputy Director of the U.S. Naval Academy’s Stockdale Center

Relations between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, long fraught with mistrust and mutual fear, are often understood in terms of competition between a once-revolutionary republic and a conservative monarchy. This meticulous and provocative study challenges conventional wisdom, interweaving Iraqi-Saudi diplomacy with domestic politics, demonstrating how the relationship left lasting marks on political discourse and sectarian and nationalist sentiments in each country.
David Siddhartha Patel, Senior Fellow at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University  

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