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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Iraqi president concludes first official trip by visiting Saudi Arabia 

Barham Salih touched down in Riyadh after stop in Tehran

Iraqi President Barham Salih attends a joint press briefing with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani before travelling to Saudi Arabia. Associated Press 
Iraqi President Barham Salih attends a joint press briefing with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani before travelling to Saudi Arabia. Associated Press 

Iraqi President Barham Salih touched down in Saudi Arabia on Sunday on the final leg of a five-country tour.

The newly elected president travelled to Kuwait, UAE, Jordan and Iran before flying to Riyadh to conclude his first official engagement since he was appointed in October.

Dr Salih's trip comes at a time of great internal challenges in the Iraqi government and a need to reconnect with old friends.

Iraq's three-year war against ISIS, a battered economy and aggrieved citizens are some of the difficulties that Baghdad has come up against – hurdles that have been exacerbated by splits within the government.

In February, Iraqi authorities estimated the country needed $88.2 billion to rebuild the north following the war against ISIS. Nine months later, many of the areas that were once under ISIS control still need rebuilding. It seems clear that Iraq can't afford to alienate itself.

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For some years now, Saudi and Iraq have worked on mending rifts and rebuilding neighbourly ties that soured following Iraq's alliance with Iran, among other things. By opening their shared border, pushing for trade and hosting sporting events, the two countries have shown a willingness to reconnect politically and economically.

Former Iraqi prime minister Haider Al Abadi visited Saudi twice last year, while Riyadh set a target of Dhs22.5 billion worth of trade with its neighbour over the next 10 years. In 2015, the opening of the Saudi embassy in Baghdad and consulates in Basra and Najaf marked a shift in policy.

But while Saudi Arabia courted Iraqi leaders behind closed doors at the weekend, its arch-foe Iran made a more public showing by turning out at the Baghdad International Fair, a shop window for business in Iraq.

An entire hangar was set aside for some of the 60 Iranian firms participating. If the region's most bitter rivalry was expected to be on display – last year dozens of Saudi companies also took part – it was an indication of how that is playing out in Iraq. No Saudi firms attended this year.

On Saturday, President Salih met Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who called for maintaining unity among ethnic and religious groups in Iraq and resisting foreign interference.

"The only way to counter plots [by Iraq's enemies] is by strengthening the unity of all Iraqi groups, including Kurds, Arabs, Shiite and Sunnis," Ayatollah Khamenei said, according to his website.

"Some governments in the region and outside of it hold a deep grudge against Islam ... and Iraq, and interfere in Iraq's internal affairs and they must be strongly resisted," he said.