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Iraqi prime minister makes first visit to Saudi Arabia

Saudi King Salman welcomed the Iraqi prime minister on his first official visit to the kingdom Wednesday, as the two oil-producing giants move toward closer diplomatic and economic ties after nearly three decades of uneasy relations.

Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi's visit came two weeks after Saudi Arabia reopened its consulate in Baghdad for the first time in nearly 30 years. The opening was accompanied with the announcement of a $1 billion aid package for Iraq.

It reflected warming relations between the two countries as they seek opportunities for shared economic growth through trade, investment, and oil production.

The visit also comes amid other shared strategic interests. Iraq seeks to reclaim a leadership position in the Arab world and Saudi Arabia seeks to counter Iran's influence throughout the region, particularly in countries like Iraq where Iran backs powerful Shiite militias.

Just hours into his visit, Abdul-Mahdi announced on his Twitter account that the two countries signed 13 agreements and memorandums of understanding between their various ministries.

In a telling sign of the lofty expectations for the two-day visit, Abdul-Mahdi's delegation included 12 government ministers — including ministers of oil, finance, and electricity — as well as several lawmakers and local officials, and a large contingent of business leaders.

Abdul-Mahdi earlier this month also visited Saudi Arabia's regional rival, Iran. The Shiite power holds considerable interests in Iraq's business and finance sectors, as well as among Iraqi political and elite Shiite figures.

After decades of conflict, Iraq is trying to steer clear of regional conflict and chart a central course between rival powers. Abdel-Mahdi, who was confirmed to his post six months ago, says Iraq seeks friendly relations with all its neighbors, including both Iran and Saudi Arabia.

"There is a desire by the political leadership in both countries to deepen ties, to build a strategic relationship that serves the interest of both countries," said Jameel al-Diyabi, the editor-in-chief of the Saudi newspaper Okaz.

Speaking in an interview with Saudi Arabia's state broadcaster al-Ekhbariya, al-Diyabi said Saudi Arabia was working to counter Iran's influence in Iraq by emphasizing Baghdad's Arab identity.

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