A key desert crossing at the heart of the Middle East reopened on Wednesday, three decades after being closed to regular traffic. At the Arar transit point, Saudi Arabia finally began to allow vehicles and people from Iraq to cross the 505-mile border. It was a tangible sign of a growing tolerance between Shiite-dominated Iraq and Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia – and a counterpoint to Iran’s religious aggression in the region.
Just days before the opening, leaders of the two Arab nations issued a statement citing “the need to keep the region away from tensions.” That is quite a contrast to Saudi Arabia writing off Iraq as a “lost cause” in 2003 after Shiites took power in Baghdad following the ouster of Saddam Hussein. The border was first closed in 1990 after Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait.
A rapprochement between the two oil giants has been five years in the making. It reflects other tectonic shifts in the Mideast, such as recent recognition of Israel by a few more Arab states and a general response by the region’s leaders to appease restless youth mobilized on social media.
At a practical level, Iraq needs Saudi investments to provide jobs and to recover from a devastating war with the Islamic State. Saudi Arabia seeks to counter Iran’s strong hand in Iraq. Yet each shows a willingness to curb the historic Sunni-Shiite rivalry in the Middle East.
As a struggling democracy, Iraq is now better able to balance the interests of its Sunni and Shiite populations. During the pandemic, Iraq’s top cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called for aid to be given to people of all faiths. And Saudi Arabia is trying to show a new face of moderate Islam. Earlier this year it sponsored a TV drama showing Jews, Christians, and Muslims living together in a peaceful village.
The line of cargo trucks at the Iraq-Saudi border on Wednesday was more than a sign of commercial exchange. The two countries “follow the same religion and share the same interests and challenges,” said Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. And, he might have added, it’s about time they show it.