As Iraq takes an increasingly significant role in the region, the nation’s neighbours are taking note. After over 20 years without one, Saudi Arabia has made the first move, appointing an ambassador to Baghdad. But the Iraqis want more.
Iraq looks to be forging its own, new regional identity, after the withdrawal of US troops late last year. And its neighbours also seem to be seeing the nation with new eyes. And one of the first to make friendly overtures is Iraq’s formerly implacable antagonist, Saudi Arabia.
After over two decades of less than friendly relations, the Saudis have appointed a non-resident ambassador to Baghdad, signalling a return to more normal diplomatic relations for the first time since former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein launched an invasion into Kuwait in 1990. The Saudi ambassador is career diplomat, Fahd al-Zaid.
Part of the reason for Iraq’s growing importance in the region is because of its unique links with Iran and the US, two countries that have a tense relationship. Additionally, at a time of transformation in the region, Iraq is seen as something of pioneer, having experienced the growing pains that come with the political change from dictatorship to fledgling democracy.
Some observers believe the move may be motivated by fear of other nations with growing influence in Iraq – in particular, they say, it’s about the Iranian influence. But the Saudis may also be worrying about other nations.
“Saudi Arabia fears that its relations with Iraq might worsen while Iraq’s relations with Qatar might improve,” local political analyst, Usama Murtada, suggested to NIQASH. “This is what has made Saudi Arabia take this proactive step. It has happened within the context of rivalry that exists between those two countries [Qatar and Saudi Arabia].”
The Iraqi government was quick to welcome the move. Although it did add that they would prefer it if the Saudi ambassador actually worked in Iraq, rather than being based in Jordan. Saudi Arabia had said that their ambassador to Iraq would be based in Jordan because of the precarious security situation in Baghdad.
“Saudi Arabia has taken a very positive step but Iraq is keen to have a resident ambassador because of the many ongoing and historical issues between the two countries that need to be resolved,” Ali al-Musawi, media adviser to the Prime Minister, told NIQASH. “We should have had relations with Saudi Arabia for some time now really. We’ve had an ambassador in Saudi Arabia for several years [since 2009] and the Saudis should have appointed someone in return. We have many diplomatic and economic issues to discuss with the Saudis.”
In a statement last week, Iraq’s Ministry of the Interior reported that a delegation of high-ranking Iraqi security officials had visited Saudi Arabia and held meetings with their counterparts there. They had discussed ways of improving ties, anti-terrorism efforts, detainees that both countries had from the other country and other issues of common interest.
However it was noted that while the Iraqi delegation was in Saudi Arabia, officials there gave the go-ahead for the execution of two Iraqi detainees held in Saudi Arabian prisons. Some observers interpreted this as a signal that the Saudis were not all that serious about the issue of detainees, one of the most controversial topics between the two countries.
According to international news reports, there are 113 Saudi prisoners in Iraq, including six on death row. In Saudi Arabia, there are 138 Iraqi prisoners in Saudi Arabia, including 11 on death row.
According to statements made by Iraq’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Ghanem al-Jumaili, the two nations would sign an agreement on the exchange of prisoners on March 12, when Iraq’s Minister of Justice, Hassan al-Shammari, came to visit.
Other issues to be discussed as part of the new diplomatic thaw between Iraq and Saudi Arabia include security issues. “Both countries are facing threats from [Sunni Muslim extremist group] al-Qaeda,” al-Musawi explained. “And it is necessary to cooperate and to exchange information.”
Another of the issues to be discussed will be the oil industry. “Co-ordination between the two OPEC member countries that have the largest oil reserves is a very important issue,” al-Musawi explained.
Although Iraq still faces problems with oil production, it is in line to become one of the biggest oil exporters in the region and therefore, a major competitor with Saudi Arabia in this area.
“Saudi Arabia has started to feel that a new Iraq is emerging, and the new Iraq is competent in terms of oil production,” political analyst, Abdul-Khaliq Jumaa, told NIQASH. “Having a fellow oil-producer as a friend is better than having it as an enemy.”
Another business-related issue to be negotiated concerns the Arar border crossing in northern Saudi Arabia. The border crossing has mostly been closed ever since the 1990 invasion of Kuwait. It is opened annually to allow pilgrims to cross the border. But now Iraq and Saudi Arabia are talking about opening the crossing properly.
The amount of business the two trading partners are doing has been increasing, Murtada noted. “Geography has an impact,” he observed. “Two neighbouring countries cannot remain so separate.”
So while the future of the new Iraqi-Saudi friendship remains unclear – there will doubtless be many more hurdles – it seems that a thaw in the formerly icy relationship has begun.