Iraqi-Saudi border crossing reopens for first time in decades

Riyadh is working to win over Iraq as part of an effort to stop the growing influence of Iran in the region, while Iraq is seeking to benefit economically from strengthening relations with its southern neighbour.
Thursday 19/11/2020
A truck carrying aid from Saudi Arabia makes its way into Iraq after the opening of Saudi-Iraqi border in Arar, Saudi Arabia, November 18. (REUTERS)
A truck carrying aid from Saudi Arabia makes its way into Iraq after the opening of Saudi-Iraqi border in Arar, Saudi Arabia, November 18, 2020. (REUTERS)

BAGHDAD--Iraq and Saudi Arabia on Wednesday reopened their land border for the first time in 30 years, with closer trade ties between the two countries irking allies of Riyadh’s rival, Tehran.

Top officials including Iraq’s interior minister and the head of its border commission travelled from Baghdad to formally open the Arar crossing.

They met up with a delegation who had joined them from Riyadh at the border crossing as a line of cargo trucks waited behind them.

 Opening a new page 

Arar will be open to both goods and people for the first time since Riyadh severed its diplomatic relationship with Baghdad in 1990, following former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.

Ties have remained rocky ever since between Riyadh and Baghdad, but current Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has a close personal relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz.

Kadhimi was to travel to Saudi Arabia on his first foreign trip as prime minister in May, but the visit was cancelled at the last minute when Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud was hospitalised.

He has yet to make the trip, although Iraqi ministers have visited Riyadh to meet with their counterparts and a top-level Saudi delegation travelled to Baghdad last week.

Baghdad sees Arar as a potential alternative to its crossings with eastern neighbour Iran, through which Iraq brings in a large share of its imports.

The two Arab states are also exploring the reopening of a second border point at Al-Jumayma along Iraq’s southern border with the Saudi kingdom.

 Concerns about pro-Iran spoilers 

But Iran-backed factions in Iraq, which call themselves the “Islamic Resistance,” have stood firmly against closer ties with Saudi Arabia.

Ahead of Arar’s opening, one such group identifying itself as Ashab al-Kahf (People of the Cave) published a statement announcing its “rejection of the Saudi project in Iraq.”

“The intelligence cadres of the Islamic Resistance are following all the details of the Saudi enemy’s activities on the Iraqi border,” it warned.

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday evening, Kadhimi fired back against those describing the rapprochement as Saudi “colonialism.”

“This is a lie. It’s shameful,” he said.

“Let them invest. Welcome to Iraq,” Kadhimi added, saying Saudi investment could bring in a flood of new jobs to Iraq where more than one-third of youth are unemployed.

“Has investment turned into colonialism?” the Iraqi premier asked, adding, “Is creating hundreds of thousands of job opportunities for our children through investment considered colonialism?”

The representative of the Union of Forces, the largest Sunni bloc in the Iraqi parliament, Raad al-Dahlaki, said that “the opening of the Arar border crossing and the opening of horizons for investment and cooperation with Saudi Arabia is a blessed beginning and a correct step taken by the government at this stage.”

While he criticised “those who seek to thwart investments to serve foreign agendas that weakened the country,” Dahlaki noted that the reopening of the Arar crossing promotes Iraq’s return “to the Arab fold.”

He added that encouraging “investment and economic cooperation with Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf countries is the right thing to do.”

The closer ties have been a long time coming.

They did not improve much after Saddam’s toppling in the 2003 US-led invasion, as Riyadh looked at the new Shia-dominated political class with suspicion due to their ties to Iran.

A thaw began in 2017 when then Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir travelled to Baghdad — the first such visit in decades — followed by a Riyadh trip by Iraqi premier Haider al-Abadi.

The first commercial flights resumed between the two countries and officials began discussing Arar, with high-profile US diplomat Brett McGurk even visiting the crossing in 2017 to support its reopening.

But those plans were repeatedly delayed, with Arar only opened on rare occasions to allow through Iraqi religious pilgrims on their way to Mecca for the hajj.

 ‘A last chance’ for Saudi Arabia 

As the late Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal put it, Riyadh needs to seize any chance to make up for its dwindling role in Iraq over the last thirty years in order to help it counter Iran’s regional influence.

Riyadh is still reluctant to enter into an economic partnership with Iraq for fear that its money will go into the pockets of hostile parties, especially as Iraq is still an arena of influence for Iran and controlled by political forces loyal to Tehran.

Iraqi-Saudi borders Map (AFP)

The political and military realities on the ground in Iraq usually refer the Saudis to the Lebanese experience, as Lebanon has received Saudi aid for decades that has only gone to indirectly benefit Hezbollah, a proxy of Tehran.

Saudi Arabia cannot restore its influence in Iraq without adopting a new approach that includes taking risks and exploiting the void created by Iranian retreat under American pressure.

In short, Riyadh is working to win over Iraq as part of an effort to stop the growing influence of Iran in the region, while Iraq is seeking to benefit economically from strengthening relations with its southern neighbour.

 In dire need for investments 

Iraq is the second-largest producer in the OPEC oil cartel, outranked only by Saudi Arabia.

Its oil, gas and electricity infrastructure is severely outdated and inefficient but low oil prices this year have stymied efforts to revamp it.

Baghdad is also notoriously slow to activate external investment, with international firms and foreign countries complaining that rampant corruption hamstrings more investment.

Kadhimi’s government has sought to fast-track foreign investment, including Saudi support for energy and agriculture.

On his trip to Washington this summer, he agreed to a half-dozen projects that would use Saudi funding to finance US energy firms.

Last year, Iraq signed a deal to plug into the Gulf Cooperation Council’s power grid and add up to 500 MW of electricity to its dilapidated electricity sector.

Those deals too have been criticised by pro-Iran factions in Iraq.