The Iraqi government has announced that the Saudi-Iraqi Coordination Council is examining an agricultural investment project covering 1 million hectares in Anbar province in western Iraq. Iraqi Planning Minister Salman al-Jumaili said the council was studying technical aspects of the project.
Experts said the project is an excellent initiative that could lead to further Saudi-Iraqi cooperation, especially in the Iraqi agricultural sector, which has enormous potential. Arable land in Iraq is not restricted to the basins of the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers but extends to most of Badiyat al-Jazira, in north-eastern Iraq, and the western desert.
Saudi Ambassador to Iraq Abdulaziz al-Shammari said the Saudi Agricultural and Livestock Investment Company (SALIC) was negotiating huge food processing facilities in the Iraqi governorates of Anbar and Muthanna. Those projects are expected to create 30,000 jobs in each governorate.
Official studies indicate that the countryside in western Iraq has the potential of becoming a world’s breadbasket because of its rich farmland and enormous water table. The area includes Lake Habbaniyah, Lake Razaza and Lake Sawa in addition to the strategic water reservoir of Haditha Dam in Anbar.
Similar potential exists in the area known as Badiyat al-Jazira, covering part of Anbar province and the provinces of Saladin and Nineveh and containing Lake Tharthar, a major water reservoir.
The agricultural sector in Iraq is expected to attract investments from other Gulf countries. Experts point out that the Gulf countries are interested in developing food security and Iraq can satisfy that strategic need. Decades of political instability in the region have made progress in that direction impossible, however.
Saudi officials said Riyadh has practical plans for strengthening Saudi-Iraqi relations through economic cooperation.
Interest in investing in farming projects in the western countryside of Iraq dates to the 1980s when China made proposals for developing huge areas of farmland. During that period, however, the priorities of the Iraqi government were focused on the war efforts during the Iran-Iraq conflict.
Farming is not new in the countryside of Anbar province. Because of the availability of fresh water springs, hundreds of successful small farms have existed for ages in the area. Provincial officials point out that fresh spring water is available in good quantities all over the countryside.
War-weary Iraqis are thrilled with the prospect of economic cooperation between Iraq and Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. Most of them look forward to seeing Iran’s influence in Iraq shrink significantly because it did not offer any economic advantage to the country.
Middle East observers praise Saudi authorities for finding, through economic cooperation, the best way to counteract Iran’s influence in Iraq. The Iraqi government, too, is interested in strengthening economic ties with Saudi Arabia.
Governments in the Gulf countries seem quite satisfied with the Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s rapprochement efforts. They feel reassured by his choices of building balanced relations with Iraq’s neighbours and putting an end to foreign agendas in Iraq.
The Saudi-Iraqi Coordination Council met in Baghdad in March to look into the cooperation measures. The council inventoried “16 memos of understanding being developed by the Iraqi government with the Saudi side. Four of these memos have been co-signed and the rest will be completed soon.”
The Saudi-Iraqi Coordination Council was established October 22, 2017, during Abadi’s official visit to Riyadh and his meeting with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.
A direct maritime line between the Saudi port of Dammam and the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr has been activated. It is the first maritime link since 1990 and will be devoted to cargo shipping. Naim al-Naim, director of King Abdul Aziz Port of Dammam, said there were weekly trips planned and the port authority was working towards doubling that frequency.
The border crossing between Saudi Arabia and Iraq at Jemima is to open soon and there are plans for preparing other border crossings. Air traffic between the countries is on the rise and plans for linking the railway networks in both countries are being prepared.
Finally, Iraq’s Central Bank announced the bilateral signing of a memo of understanding concerning the opening of branches of Iraqi and Saudi banks on each other’s territories.
Salam Sarhan is an Iraqi writer.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.