CAIRO - Saudi Arabia and Iraq say they are in the process of improving relations after the first busloads of Iraqi pilgrims entered the Saudi kingdom through a border crossing at Arar, which had been closed for 27 years. The nations also say that they are resuming air transportation, but have not set a date for the first flights.
Saudi and Iraqi officials embraced each other to celebrate the reopening of their Arar border crossing. A convoy of tour buses carrying more than 1,000 Iraqi pilgrims bound for Mecca entered Saudi territory, amid festivities to welcome them.
Saudi Prince Faisal bin Khalid, governor of the northern region where the border crossing is located, welcomed the pilgrims with copies of the Koran, according to Arab media.
Hilal Khashan, who teaches political science at the American University of Beirut, says he thinks a recent visit to Saudi Arabia by Iraq's Muqtada al-Sadr was part of an indirect attempt to mend relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In Jeddah, the Shi'ite cleric met with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.
Khashan also noted an overture by Iraqi Shi'ite leader Ammar Hakim to open his party to Sunnis. But, he says, if Saudi Arabia hopes to marginalize Iran with the move, it may be disappointed.
"I believe that the Iranians would stand to benefit from this (move), even though some people would argue that this would likely weaken Iran's role in Iraq. I don't really see it," said Khasan. "I think that Saudi Arabia is reluctant to engage Iran directly, so therefore it engages it through Iraqi Shi'ites."
The governor of Iraq's predominantly Sunni Anbar Province, Souheib al-Rawi, tells Arab media the two countries are "cooperating at the highest levels." He says the busloads of Iraqi pilgrims heading to the annual hajj in Mecca are the first to enter Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir discussed improving ties during an historic visit to Baghdad earlier this year. The countries had been at odds since President Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 and relations were further frayed last year when Iraqi officials demanded the recall of newly appointed Saudi ambassador to Baghdad Thamer al-Sabhan over comments about the activities of pro-Iranian militias in Iraq.
Saudi military chief of staff General Abdel Rahman al-Bunyan said during a visit to the Iraqi defense ministry several weeks ago that Baghdad and Riyadh will set up a joint technical cooperation center to exchange information.
The governor of Iraq's Muthana Province, which borders Saudi Arabia, welcomed the reopening of border crossings in the hope it will lead to closer economic ties.
The Saudi-owned al-Hayat newspaper reported Tuesday that Riyadh and Baghdad have also agreed to resume air links between the two countries, but that no official date has been set for the start of flights.