Saudi budget-carrier Flynas on Wednesday launched the first direct flight between the kingdom and Iraq since the Gulf War 27 years ago, marking another move by the kingdom to improve ties with its neighbor in an attempt to blunt rival Iran’s vast influence there.
The carrier posted on its Twitter account an image of the crew that took part in the inaugural flight, which took off from Riyadh bound for Baghdad just before noon.
“We worked hard to see that Flynas flights to the brotherly nation of Iraq are operational as quickly as possible in order to connect the two brotherly nations economically and socially after a 27-year-long break,” Flynas CEO Bandar al-Muhanna said in a statement.
Saudi Arabia’s national carrier, Saudia, is scheduled to make its inaugural flight to Baghdad on Thursday, Abbas Al-Khafaji, the media director for Iraq’s Civil Aviation, told The Associated Press.
The flights are the latest sign of improved relations between the two countries. A number of high-profile Iraqis have visited Saudi Arabia in recent months, including a rare visit in July by influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Saudi Arabia also has plans to open a border crossing with Iraq, which has been closed since Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait in 1990 with the exception of some Iraqi pilgrims who have entered the kingdom for the hajj.
The Sunni-led kingdom, which had opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, has long been anxious about Iran’s footprint in Shiite-majority Iraq and its network of allied militias there. Saudi Arabia has consistently described Iraq as an Arab nation to differentiate it from Shiite but non-Arab Iran.
The kingdom is also looking to Iraq as a potential trading partner and as a major investment opportunity amid reconstruction efforts in cities like Mosul, which were devastated by the war against the Islamic State terrorist group.