Riyadh and Baghdad accelerate efforts to develop cooperation

Paramount among the goals is returning Iraq fully back to the Arab fold while stemming Iranian influence in the country.

LONDON — Saudi Arabia’s drive to strengthen ties with Iraq is moving at a swift rate, including the announcement that Riyadh would give Baghdad a $1 billion grant and open several consulates across Iraq.

The grant from Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud is intended to build a sports city. It was announced during a visit by a high-level Saudi trade delegation to Baghdad for a meeting of the Saudi-Iraqi Coordination Council.

Riyadh said rapprochement with Iraq is intended to achieve several goals, mostly related to security and economic matters. Paramount among the goals is returning Iraq fully back to the Arab fold while stemming Iranian influence in the country.

An indication of the importance the Saudis placed on the Baghdad meeting was make-up of the Saudi delegation, which was led by Saudi Minister of Commerce and Investment Majid bin Abdullah al-Qasabi and included six other high-ranking ministers and nearly 100 members of the Saudi business community and various government officials.

The second session of the Saudi-Iraqi Coordination Council took place April 4 and was led by Qasabi and Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister for Energy and Minister of Oil Thamir Ghadhban. Besides discussing bilateral cooperation, participants signed several memorandums of understanding focused on fields of petrochemicals, transport, the haj, economy, trade, culture and education.

Qasabi, speaking at a news conference, said that there were 13 agreements signed between Saudi Arabia and Iraq, “which are in their final stages and will have a significant effect on raising the level of cooperation between the two countries to achieve the aspirations of their leaders and peoples.”

Qasabi said the Saudi government was eager to support development projects in Iraq, including the kingdom’s $1 billion loan last year to support the projects and $500 million to enable exports.

The Saudis also on April 4 formally opened a consulate inside Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone.

Saudi-Iraqi relations deteriorated under Iraqi President Saddam Hussein after the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Relations worsened following the 2003 war in which Saddam was removed from power.

This resulted in the empowerment of the country’s Shia majority and the marginalisation and persecution of Iraq’s Sunni minority while the Iraqi government maintained strong ties with Riyadh’s regional foe, Tehran.

Efforts by Riyadh to re-engage with Iraq started when Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir made an unannounced visit to Baghdad in February 2017, the first by a high-ranking Saudi official since 2003. In June, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi met with King Salman in Saudi Arabia.

In October 2017 Riyadh and Baghdad announced they had agreed to open shared border crossings and resume direct flights. In February 2018, in a conference in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and other international donors pledged billions of dollars to help Iraq in its reconstruction efforts following its efforts to eradicate the Islamic State.

Saudi-funded broadcaster the MBC Group introduced a premium TV channel geared towards Iraqis in February, adding a cultural dimension to Riyadh’s rapprochement drive.

The same month, Iraqi officials announced that construction on the Arab border crossing with Saudi Arabia had begun.

“The ministry has started the building of a new complex, which includes branches for all concerned government departments that will work at the crossing, such as [departments of] customs, passports, quarantine, as well as other administrative buildings,” the privately owned Shafaq News website quoted the ministry as saying.

In what is likely to be reassuring to officials in Riyadh was Iraqi President Barham Salih’s interview with Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, in which he described ties between the two countries as “growing.”

“I sensed from King Salman his complete keenness on Iraq,” Salih said, adding that “bolstering relations with the kingdom” was an integral part of his government’s vision.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi is to soon visit Saudi Arabia.

Mohammed Alkhereiji is the Arab Weekly’s Gulf section editor.

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