The Saudi-Iraqi main Arar border crossing reopened last month after a 30-year closure dating to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Observers consider it the biggest step toward normalization of relations since the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein.
Saudi Arabia has been very reluctant to accept a Shi’ite-led government in Iraq in the war’s aftermath, but Middle East observers say that both countries are reading changing realities in the region and recognize the need to move forward.
Observers say the rapprochement between the two oil giants has been years in the making. Saudi Arabia wants to counter the growing political and military influence of its rival Iran in Iraq and the region, while Iraq needs Saudi investments to help provide jobs for its numerous unemployed youths and recover from years of devastating sectarian conflict.
Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy in Washington, says a new U.S. administration will likely engage Iran in a bid to curb its nuclear ambitions. That has spurred Saudi Arabia to mend ties with Gulf neighbors.
“The Saudis have belatedly realized that isolating Iraq has only pushed it into the hands of the Iranians. The current effort which is by far the most significant by opening up the border checkpoint reflects the Saudi awareness that counting on the patronage of the Trump administration over the last four years is coming to an end, facing what is going to be a very difficult time in U.S.-Saudi relations. They are trying to re-posture somewhat. One is with the Iraqis, another with Qataris,” Riedel said.
Other observers say the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iraq reflects diplomatic shifts such as recognition of Israel by the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain and warming ties between Qatar and Gulf states with Egypt.
A Dubai Gulf News editorial called the Arar border reopening “a new milestone in the long and historic relationship between these two Arab neighbors.” It heralded “the latest positive development to accrue from the ongoing dialogue between (Saudi) Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.”
Riedel said that while improving ties is beneficial, he warns that Iran has been cultivating Iraqi Shi’ite and Kurdish politicians for decades.
“It’s helpful in that it gives Iraqi leaders some balance. But at the end of the day, Iran has enormous influence in Iraq. Saudi can help to modestly offset that, but it can’t fundamentally change the fact that Iran is the leading regional player with influence in Iraqi politics,” Riedel said.
The Arar transit is viewed as an alternative to Iraq’s crossings with Iran to the east, through which it brings in huge imports. Some pro-Iran factions in Iraq, however, oppose closer ties with Sunni Muslim stalwart, Saudi Arabia. And Saudi Arabia will also be wary of potential Shi’ite militant traffic from Iraq crossing inside its own border.