Closer Saudi-Iraqi ties as Abadi meets with King Salman
London- Saudi efforts to return Iraq to the Arab fold appear to be yielding results. The two countries announced numerous measures to strengthen ties following their first Coordination Council meeting in Riyadh.
After the council’s launch October 22, Iraq and Saudi Arabia said they agreed to open shared border crossings and resume full-time flights, and that Saudi Arabia would reopen its consulate as a part of its diplomatic mission in Iraq.
The event was hosted by Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and attended by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
“Our region is facing severe challenges, such as extremism, terrorism and attempts to disrupt the stability and security of our countries,” King Salman said.
“This requires total coordination, to confront these challenges,” he said, adding that it was a historic opportunity to build an effective partnership.
Abadi said Iraq was “serious about cooperation” and “sincere in extending our hand.”
Both countries, which are looking to establish a joint trade zone on the border, reached an understanding to “develop the partnership between the private sector in the two countries and to allow businessmen to identify trade and investment opportunities,” a joint statement said.
The council reiterated its commitment to restoring flights between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The first Saudi commercial plane in 27 years landed in Baghdad on October 18.
Analysts said the announcements are part of Riyadh’s efforts to counter Iranian influence in Iraq. Many Gulf Arab countries view Tehran as a destabilising force in the region. The rapprochement efforts have been embraced by Washington and were viewed by the Trump administration as a positive step in curbing Iranian influence in Iraq.
“We think this is an important milestone in restoring relationships between Iraq and the Gulf, the [Gulf Cooperation Council] GCC countries and Saudi Arabia that’s going to lead to very important economic development in Iraq as well,” Tillerson said.
“All for the good of the people of Iraq and strengthening the security and stability of the region,” he added.
In an interview on the Dubai-based Al Arabiya TV, which emphasised Riyadh’s motivations in seeking better ties with Iraq to distance it from Tehran, Iraqi analyst Najm al-Qassab pointed to motivations from the Iraqi side.
“After a near-total isolation in recent years… at the end of the day, Iraq feels the risk — it knows it cannot move forward without being a principal part of the Arab states,” he said.
Saudi-Iraqi relations deteriorated after Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Relations worsened following the 2003 war in which Saddam was removed from power. This resulted in empowering the country’s Shia majority and the marginalisation and persecution of Iraq’s Sunni minority. The government in Baghdad maintained strong ties with Riyadh’s regional foe, Tehran.
Efforts by Saudi Arabia to re-engage Iraq started when Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir made a surprise visit in February to Baghdad, the first by a high-ranking Saudi official since 2003. In June, Abadi met with King Salman in Jeddah.
“The countries agreed to establish a coordination council to upgrade relations to the hoped-for strategic level and open new horizons for cooperation in different fields,” a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) said at the time.
Jubeir, speaking October 24 at London’s Chatham House think-tank, said relations between the two countries are historic and reflect their significant social, economic and geographical ties.
He added that Saudi Arabia’s interests in Iraq are to restore the country’s’ advancement, move it away from ethnic and sectarian conflicts and ensure a unified, stable and secure country contrary to Iran’s expansionist designs, SPA reported.
The Coordination Council is to meet again in September.