Saudi Arabia, with help from the United States of America, is pushing aside years of hostility with its neighbor Iraq and embarking on an effort to win Baghdad’s allegiance, and to dilute Iran’s influence over the pivotal U.S. ally.
Courting Iraq’s Shiite leaders, Saudi authorities are now expanding the kingdom’s diplomatic presence by opening direct flights and reopening crossings closed for decades on the heavily fortified, 600-mile border.
“We share historical, cultural and social links with Iraq,” Thamer al-Sabhan, the minister of state for Gulf affairs, said after stopping at the newly reopened Arar border crossing. “If anything, I think we should be moving even faster.”
The move will give a political and economic boost to the Iraqi government as it drives the Islamic State and jihadi terrorists from the country and moves to rebuild.
“This is part of Washington DC’s push to align Iraq a little more toward the Saudi Arabias and Turkeys of the world—and to blunt a little bit of the Iranian influence,” said a U.S. official, who described Saudi-Iraqi friendship as a priority for the Trump administration, stating, “It’s never too late.”
The U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State, which includes Saudi forces, has fought on the same side as Iran against the Sunni extremist group. Success in eliminating the terrorist group, also known as Daesh, creates an opportunity for coalition allies to gain leverage in Iraq.
“We have been focused over the last three years not only on defeating Daesh but on what comes after Daesh,” Brett McGurk, the U.S. envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic State, said at the border with Mr. Sabhan. “We will do everything we possibly can to support your effort,” he told Iraqi and Saudi officials gathered there.
Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait shut down relations, along with the Saudi-Iraqi border, in 1990. The Saudi monarchy all but ignored Iraq in the years of war and instability that followed Saddam’s fall in 2003, leaving Iran to expand its influence through Iraq’s government, the powerful militias, and the economy.
A new Saudi leadership is behind the change, which serves as an example of the intensified efforts by King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to counter Iranian influence across the region, including a war against rebels in Yemen aligned with Iran.
Iraq Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has welcomed the Saudi outreach, which comes as he battles a political rival, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is close to Tehran, ahead of parliamentary elections next year.
The first of around 140 flights connecting Baghdad, Riyadh, and other cities each month are set to start in the coming weeks, Saudi and Iraqi officials said.
The border crossing at Arar was reopened this month for trade and travelers, just in time for Iraqis to make the annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, now under way. Officials have agreed to open a second crossing next year.
“We are finally returning to the fold of our Arab brothers,” said Abed al-Maliki, one of the thousands of mostly Shiite Iraqi pilgrims who have crossed the border at Arar recently. A billboard of King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman greeted the pilgrims as they entered the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia now wants to expand its diplomatic presence across the country. The first new consulate, in Najaf, the spiritual and academic heartland of Shiite Islam, is likely to open in the next two months, Saudi and Iraqi officials said. More are set to open in the southern city of Basra and in Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq.
Saudi companies, including oil giant Aramco, are eyeing opportunities for investment in Iraq in areas including petrochemicals and agriculture. The Saudi dairy, Almarai, is considering producing animal feed in the impoverished border province of Muthanna, Saudi and Iraqi officials said.
“We lost all our prosperity when ties with Saudi were cut,” said Reesan Mutasher al-Zayad, a sheik whose tribe straddles the border. “People have high hopes,” he said. “We look forward to having good relations with our Saudi brothers.”
ABOUT SAUDI ARABIA
Saudi Arabia is a desert country encompassing most of the Arabian Peninsula, with Red Sea and Persian (Arabian) Gulf coastlines. Known as the birthplace of Islam, it’s home to the religion’s 2 most sacred mosques: Masjid al-Haram, in Mecca, destination of the annual Hajj pilgrimage, and Medina’s Masjid an-Nabawi, burial site of the prophet Muhammad. Riyadh, the capital, is a skyscraper-filled metropolis.
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