He was not exaggerating. Not long after that conversation, I met Ayad Yahya, the general director of Al-Bilad Islamic Bank. While we talked in his office, a young, English-speaking assistant came in and proudly showed off the bank’s first debit card. They were planning on rolling out the card to customers the following week, as soon as they worked out the kinks in the computer system Yahya recently bought from Oracle. The A.T.M. itself was still in its shipping box in the bank’s lobby.
Yahya, an aging economist who once worked for Iraq’s state bank, recalled visits to Amman and Beirut under Hussein’s rule. “We brought back bananas and Pepsi for our children,” he told me. “We said to them, ‘This is a banana.’ ” In 2007, while the sectarian fighting in Iraq was still in full bloom, Yahya acquired the means to make Pepsi himself. He led a group of investors that took over the formerly state-run Baghdad Soft Drinks Company, a factory on the city’s southern outskirts that was once partly owned by Hussein’s erratic and fearsome son, Uday. It was the officially licensed Pepsi franchise in Iraq from 1984 until it shut down production after the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Now it’s humming again. With new management, a renewed Pepsi license and an extensive refurbishment, including new bottling lines, generators and water purifiers (the source being the Tigris River, half a mile away), it supplies 80 percent of the soda in Baghdad and nearly half in all of Iraq. This makes it one of the country’s largest manufacturers, which is a sign of its managerial success and also the sad state of manufacturing in Iraq.
“The economy is growing, but the path is long,” Yahya said later over a lunch at the soda plant that included Iraq’s national dish, a delicious roasted carp, called masquf, and Diet Pepsi. “This is just the very beginning.” As we ate, Al Jazeera murmured on a flat-screen, broadcasting the protests in Egypt that toppled Hosni Mubarak. Yahya watched the scenes, riveted. “Arab investors used to think Egypt was the most stable,” he said. “Now we are.”
The war in Iraq is widely seen as a colossal blunder of American hubris that killed tens of thousands and displaced many more, leaving a shattered, sectarian wreck of a country. Even now, as President Obama withdraws the last of nearly 50,000 American troops by the end of the year, the insurgency simmers and the state is neither stable nor fully democratic. The government is rife with corruption and paralyzed by an ossified bureaucracy. And yet also, undeniably, Iraq has turned a corner. After years of war, looting, sectarian bloodshed and political infighting, Iraq’s economy is beginning to take off, fueled by a resurgence in oil exploitation — and soon natural gas — and an influx of foreign capital that has swelled despite the protracted political impasse that followed Iraq’s parliamentary elections in March 2010.
The International Monetary Fund recently estimated that Iraq’s gross domestic product grew 2.6 percent last year — nearly as much as the struggling American economy did — and it projected astonishing increases exceeding 11 percent this year and next. Some say Iraq’s economy — estimated at roughly $80 billion today — could expand six or seven times in the next decade as it increases oil production to a level rivaling Saudi Arabia’s.
“That’s conservative,” James Hogan, the country director for the international banking giant HSBC, told me as we sat in his sleek, glass-walled office in Baghdad. HSBC acquired control of the Dar Es Salaam Investment Bank in 2005 and has since built it into one of Iraq’s largest private financial institutions. It had assets worth $91 million when HSBC took control; according to Hogan, it has $407 million in assets now. By market capitalization, it is the largest company traded on the Iraqi Stock Exchange, an institution that did not exist in 2003 and began electronic trades only two years ago. “What success will look like in 5, 10, 20 years, that’s what we’re all here for,” Hogan said.
“People used to say: ‘America is coming for our oil! America is after our oil!’ ” Abbas Fadhil Shamara told me. “But at the end of the day, you did not see many companies.” Today Iraqis complain not that Americans are coming to steal their oil but that our companies — and foreign corporations, too — are too slow to arrive.
It would be wrong to say that Shamara was callous about the carnage still being wrought in his country. The attacks that day killed at least 30 people, culminating a bloody week that left some 200 Iraqis dead. But that is not the Iraq Shamara sees. He argued that the media and the international community, and especially equivocating investors, have clung to and perpetuated a misconception of Iraq as a politically unstable, deeply corrupt hell on earth. All of which is true, but he had a point.
Riding through Baghdad’s gridlocked traffic, I passed along Mansour’s main shopping street. It was thronged with people, Iraqis unaware of or undaunted by the day’s violence. In the first months after the American invasion in 2003 — that fleeting period of hope before darkness fell — Baghdad spilled over with cheap imports of everything imaginable: cigarettes, sodas and especially fans and air-conditioners, stacked in piles on sidewalks and in markets. It was typical of a postwar economy: chaotic and unregulated. Even in the worst years of “the events,” as Iraqis call the war, people shopped for necessities, though always well before dark. Today they do so in newly opened stores. Of all the so-called benchmarks that the United States Congress imposed to measure the progress of war, no one thought to include a count of the number of plate-glass windows in Baghdad’s storefronts. Installing one is a gesture of defiance, or at least resilience, in a place where bombs still routinely shatter glass. They began appearing more and more in the last couple of years, as good a measure of public confidence in improved security — and a rising retail economy — as any other.
When I noted to Shamara that I still had to drive through two checkpoints on the street leading to his house, he responded dismissively, as if the militarized cityscape was now a mere annoyance. “That’s because Chalabi lives here,” he said, referring to Ahmad Chalabi, the politician widely reviled for misleading the United States into war — and who is also a very rich man.
Shamara and his brother, Ali, are scions of a mercantile family that produced textiles in the 1960s and ’70s and later, as the regime withered under international sanctions following the disastrous invasion of Kuwait in 1990, supplied Hussein’s ministries with chemicals, pesticides, medical equipment and harvesters. (Shamara is a man of contradiction. He was imprisoned by Hussein’s secret service in the 1970s but later did business with his sons.)
Today in the new Iraq, the Shamara Holding Company builds power stations and steel mills. It is expanding into pipelines, refineries and other services for the various multinational corporations that in 2009 won the first contracts to exploit Iraq’s oil and natural gas, in what was one of the single biggest energy auctions in history.
“I always say we have a jewel in our hand,” he said, “but we don’t know how to market it.”
Two weeks before I met Shamara, he was in Japan doing just that, as a consultant for the Japanese Embassy in Baghdad. When I telephoned him a week later, he explained in a hush that he was in Istanbul attending a conference on Iraq’s plans to vastly expand its power stations by offering contracts and operating profits to private investors like Shamara Holding. Those contracts, given the sorry state of the country’s electricity, could eventually be worth billions of dollars.
From 2006 until January of this year, the American effort to rebuild Iraq’s economy was largely run not by the embassy but by the Pentagon. During the worst years of sectarian violence, the Pentagon created the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations, led by an intense, taciturn engineer and deputy under secretary of defense, Paul A. Brinkley. It became known as the Brinkley Group, and as with much of the Pentagon’s conduct in the war, its work proved controversial. While it lured investors from all over the world, housing them in a motel-like villa in the Green Zone, its ultimate value is disputed even now. Brinkley himself was investigated for mismanagement and personal misconduct but was never charged with anything. (I have met him twice in Baghdad since 2009, but he did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this article.)
The task force has now shifted its efforts to Afghanistan, a country with far less economic potential than Iraq. Its last project in Iraq was to organize a trip to Baghdad in January for a nonprofit group called the Business Executives for National Security and a handful of prospective investors, including Georgette Mosbacher of the cosmetic maker Borghese; Anthony Scaramucci of SkyBridge Capital; and Rick Goings, the chairman of Tupperware. Their goal was not to seek out investment opportunities so much as to promote entrepreneurialism among the Iraqis themselves. At a meeting with students at Baghdad University, it became clear that much was lost in translation. Mosbacher, also an author and an ardent Republican fund-raiser, shared her up-by-the-bootstraps biography — small-town girl from Indiana achieves the American dream — and offered “practical advice” for anyone in the auditorium who wanted to begin a business. Some of the biggest companies in America, she said, “were started in garages.” “Look around,” she told the students, most of them young women. “Ask what’s not being done. Is it difficult to get shirts cleaned?” (Dry cleaning in Baghdad was, in fact, crippled by international sanctions that banned imports of chemicals. A colleague once told me his suit was cleaned with gasoline.)
The students — some in head scarves, some not — applauded politely, but then a third-year student in physics, Fatin Khalid, stood up and asked when these companies would be coming to Iraq to open businesses that they might work for. Rick Goings offered what he said was “the bitter truth.” “I think it is unlikely that most global corporations — European and American — are going to set up significant companies here because of security,” he told the students. Earlier he said the same thing to the dean. “They have China, India, Indonesia, where there is not a likelihood of getting killed.”
I met Mosbacher again two days later as the delegation prepared to leave. It was her first visit to Iraq, and her main impression was that it was less dangerous than she expected. When I asked her about investing in Iraq, though, she demurred. “Look,” she told me, “I’m going to do business anywhere where I can get quality products.” Iraq’s problem, she said, was that there was “no real concept of a market economy.” She had doubts about the infrastructure needed to warehouse and ship products, about access to capital and, above all, about corruption. “There’s a sense that everyone has their hand out,” she said. “That’s a real problem for U.S. investors.”
In the spring of 2008, as the Bush administration was eagerly defending the troop surge, the Brinkley Group appeared to have landed its most prominent American investment. Marriott International was negotiating to operate a business-class hotel in the Green Zone. Baghdad, a city with an estimated eight million people, had a dearth of hotels even before the American invasion. Even the most famous hotels — the Rashid, with its floor-tile mosaic mocking George H. W. Bush; the Ishtar Sheraton; and the Palestine, where most foreign journalists stayed — were dingy, fraying relics. After the invasion, they also became frequent targets of mortars, rockets and car bombs. Marriott’s interest was a desperately wanted sign of economic revitalization, but like many large projects in Baghdad, it was hyped with fanfare that proved to be unrealistic. In late 2008, a car bomb badly damaged the Marriott in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, underscoring the risks inherent in establishing an American brand in places roiled by anti-American extremism. The deal in Baghdad quietly failed to materialize.
The hotel has, however.
“It doesn’t need a feasibility study,” Hayder al-Judi, an engineer by training, told me at a bustling construction site in the center of the Green Zone. Judi returned from exile in New Zealand after the war and is now building an 11-story, 300-room hotel and conference center that will be the first significant addition to the Baghdad skyline since Hussein’s overthrow. As did Akabi and the others, he told me that the business opportunities in today’s Iraq were self-evident. The oil and gas investments will bring a new wave of businessmen and executives, all of whom need a place to stay in a country with very few hotels of the standard they are used to. “We need 20 of these as a start,” he said.
Brinkley’s task force worked feverishly to support the project, bringing Judi together with a group of American investors led by Summit Global Group, a company registered in Delaware and led by Robert K. Kelley, a former Congressional aide who at the start of the war shepherded members of Congress around Iraq for the American occupation authority and later for the United States Embassy. Judi and four other Iraqi investors, whom he declined to name, control 75 percent of the $100 million project; the Americans 25 percent. The Overseas Private Investment Corporation in Washington provided a loan of $50 million and, tellingly, $25 million in political-risk insurance. “It required a leap of faith,” Judi told me.
In May 2008, he and the others acquired a 50-year lease for the land and broke ground that July, even as negotiations with Marriott to operate the hotel fell through. The hotel was the first foreign investment licensed by Iraq’s National Investment Commission, but even with the high-level support from the American and Iraqi governments, the project struggled to navigate Iraq’s sluggish bureaucracy. In 2009, behind blast walls that shielded the site from view, workers cleared the ground and began driving pilings 80 feet into the sandy soil, a necessity because of the high-water table of the nearby Tigris. Bureaucracy and uncertain financing, however, stalled construction in August 2009, and even now Judi is awaiting still more approvals. “It was frustrating for all of us at the time,” Judi said, “but we were pioneers.” (Kelley told me in Washington that it was not entirely the Iraqis’ fault. He also attributed the yearlong delay to the transition at OPIC from the administrations of President Bush to President Obama.)
The investors ultimately reached a deal with Rotana, the hotel-management company based in the United Arab Emirates that, Kelley said, understood the cultural sensitivities of running a hotel for foreigners in the Arab world. Rotana opened its first hotel in Iraq this year — in Erbil, the capital of the relatively safe and increasingly prosperous Kurdish autonomous region. Rooms start at $215 a night and reach $1,415 for a presidential suite. The Baghdad Rotana will be no less swank, but it is designed with the realities of a violent city in mind. It has reinforced risers and girders and is far enough from any public road to minimize the threat of car bombs. The roof will have two layers to absorb the impact of mortars or rockets, which still occasionally land in the Green Zone. “We tried to get away from glass to the extent that we could,” Judi explained.
A glossy brochure shows rooms with sleek, modern furnishings, a patisserie, a cigar lounge, a Belgian beer cafe and an outdoor swimming pool. Nothing like it exists in Baghdad. The first time I saw the designs in 2010, at a time when construction was halted, it was impossible to imagine the hotel in the scarred, shabby cityscape. When I met Judi there in February, though, the hotel’s skeleton rose to the second floor. Bloodied handprints stained the walls — a ritual of Iraqi construction workers, using the blood of slaughtered lambs to celebrate the completion of each phase of work.
From the second floor, Judi pointed to a vacant lot to the west of the site. “I think it’s going to be a shopping mall,” he said as we watched the sunset cast a golden hue on the former Baath Party headquarters, once one of the most feared places in Iraq.
“People say, ‘When is the right moment?’ ” Judi said of investing in Iraq. “You never know when the right moment is.” Like most Iraqis I talked to, he declined to discuss money in detail. When I pressed him, though, he said the return on the investors’ share in the hotel could be “north of 35, 40 percent.”
Iraq remains a violent place, but standing there with Judi, a new Iraq no longer seemed simply a pipe dream of a desperate American administration hoping for some silver lining to emerge out of a disastrous war. “Everyone assumes stability will return, and then the investors will come,” he said. “My view is that investment will come into the country and then stability will improve.”
Namir al-Akabi, the very optimistic chairman of Almco, is typical of Iraq’s new class of entrepreneurs. They are men — almost without exception — with a genetic understanding of Iraqi culture, a business acumen honed in exile and an irrepressible acceptance of risk. Bearish and gregarious, unfazed by all that bedevils the place, he returned to Iraq for the first time in 33 years only days after the American tanks rolled into Baghdad. As he tells the story, his first contract was to supply $500 worth of gasoline to the invaders. He negotiated the terms of his deal over a satellite phone with a bad connection and little grasp of the American military’s jargon. “They kept talking about MoGas,” he recalled, referring to gasoline, as opposed to AvGas, or aviation fuel. “I didn’t know what it was.” He learned quickly, then filled a tanker and drove it to Mosul, where he found and filled up five American sport utility vehicles on the side of the road. “I lost money,” he said, but the deal opened the door to the vast opportunities afforded by an American war machine that to date has spent more than $61 billion trying to rebuild Iraq.
In 2003, Akabi created Almco — the Al Iraq al-Moaser Company, “the modern Iraq Company.” He soon won dozens of contracts at American bases across the country, building tent camps for troops and providing fuel, generators and security. He claims to have built three-quarters of the buildings at the sprawling military airfield in Taji, just north of Baghdad. In 2005, he underbid K.B.R. for the contract to cater the American detention center at Camp Bucca near Basra, which then held 22,000 Iraqis swooped up in American raids. (It has since closed, and the regional government in Basra has announced plans to turn Bucca into a business park or a tourist resort.)
“This was the single largest catering company in the world,” he boasted when I met him in one of Almco’s offices in the still heavily fortified Green Zone. The villa that housed the offices looked like a construction site, surrounded by generators and company trucks emblazoned with Almco’s motto: “We make the impossible happen.” Akabi now employs more than 7,000 people across the country and earns, he said, $600 million in revenue a year.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, he adores the Americans. His office walls are covered with dozens of grip-and-grin photographs of American commanders (outnumbering those of Iraqi leaders like Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki) and certificates of appreciation from the American military, including one praising the catering contract at Camp Bucca. A folded American flag rests on a shelf, a memento of an American military base he once serviced but has since closed, as most already have.
“What the U.S. did was a success,” he said later as we drove to Taji to visit his projects, including a newly finished helicopter hangar which, as his certificate of appreciation noted, is the largest open-span steel structure in all of Iraq. “They made mistakes along the way. They had a plan for the invasion but not for after the invasion. Now, it is a success.” He paused. “In 10 or 20 years, Iraq will be booming, by the way. Under Saddam Hussein, Iraqis didn’t have hope. Today we have hope.”
Working with the Americans in postinvasion Iraq had its risks, and it still does. Iraqi contractors working for the so-called occupiers were favorite targets of insurgents. On the drive to Taji, we passed near the spot where one night in 2004 gunmen opened fire on his convoy as it neared the base. He was traveling with 12 men; 4 were killed. He escaped by hiding in reeds beside the Tigris until morning. On the drive back to Baghdad, he showed me the gnarled guardrail on a bridge where a roadside bomb nearly killed him in 2008; a passing truck absorbed the force of the blast. He credits his business success to the fact that he never left Iraq but instead learned to work with the American contracting system, even as potential competitors fled for their lives.
That the American military is due to pull out completely by the end of 2011 has hardly curbed Akabi’s enthusiasm. The steady withdrawal of American soldiers that began to pick up speed under President Obama in 2009 has coincided with the first significant influx of international oil companies.
They all need the same services he provided the Americans — from housing to catering to security. “Oil and gas people are more pampered,” he said. “They live in the desert, but they’re used to quality. They’re not the military. They don’t want to live the hard life.”
As we drove, he received a telephone call from an official with Eni, the Italian energy company, inquiring about an estimate for installing security equipment at the Zubair oil field near Basra. Almco is already building the company’s camp there. (“I brought in an Italian chef,” he said.) The conversation seemed to go in circles over the details of what’s known in the bidding process as a request for proposal. When he hung up, after finally promising a bid within 10 days, he complained, “It’s so hard to work with the Italians.”
That, of course, can also be said of the Iraqis. In the cup holder beside his seat in the Suburban, Akabi had rested a black Zastava pistol, made in Serbia and engraved in Arabic. (I asked him about it in the hope that he would move it, since it was pointed at my right knee on a bumpy ride. He did, lifting it in his right hand while cradling a Nokia in his left.) The engraving on the pistol’s barrel explained that it was a gift from Maliki, who doled them out as campaign favors during a meeting with businessmen and tribal leaders on the eve of last year’s election, which he ultimately won by tenaciously outmaneuvering his chief rivals, including Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite much closer to the United States. “Honestly,” Maliki said at the time, “I wish I could give a pistol and a rifle to each one who stood beside the government against the gangs to express our appreciation.”
Maliki’s electoral munificence underscored the cozy, corrupted relationship between the state and business. The Iraqi state, after all, still controls an estimated 80 to 90 percent of the economy — from the oil fields to 176 state-owned enterprises, holdovers of Soviet-style central planning. As a result, Maliki’s government is the largest patron of economic development and, many say, the biggest obstacle to it.
The country’s laws remain largely untested or, in the case of foreign investment, still mostly unwritten. So far, the newly seated Parliament has shown little inclination to take on legislation that would open the economy to market forces.
“We still have politicians who believe investment is like occupation,” says Mohammed al-Rubaie, the chairman of strategic planning for the Baghdad Provincial Council and one of 11 brothers who own property and run businesses across the city, from a stationery-supplies chain to a mobile-phone franchise in a new headquarters on the eastern bank of the Tigris. One of the stationery supplier’s biggest customers is the Baghdad Provincial Council — the sort of nepotism that would be a conflict of interest in the United States but is commonplace in Iraq.
I met Rubaie in his brother’s store shortly after he returned from Paris, where he participated in talks with the French company Alstom to build, improbably, a monorail in Baghdad, at a projected cost of $2 billion for the first 15 miles. “They hate something from the West,” he said of those who opposed investment. “These people — we want to change them.”
Without exception, Iraq’s businessmen told me that their greatest challenge today is not security but the bureaucracy and its attendant corruption. Transparency International ranks Iraq at the very bottom of its list, with only three other countries considered more corrupt: Afghanistan, Myanmar and Somalia. For ease of doing business, the World Bank last year ranked Iraq 166th out of 183 countries.
Akabi complained that he was thwarted by government officials when he tried to create a helicopter taxi service in Basra for foreign oil workers. Ayad Yahya of Bilad Islamic Bank complained that an armored truck he bought had been stuck in customs for six months already at the country’s notoriously corrupt port south of Basra. When Hussein al-Shabibi, a charming pastry chef and cake decorator, tried to register the pastry shop he opened in the Jadriya neighborhood of Baghdad in 2008 — a modern, glass-fronted shop that would not be out of place in suburban America — he was turned down on the grounds that its name, Vanilla, was not Arabic. As a result, he acknowledged rather openly, he refuses to pay taxes. Bashir al-Obaidi, the youthful manager of Baghdad’s only Mercedes-Benz showroom, which opened a couple of years ago, said that the government could not provide the automaker the precise grade of gasoline used in the country because there were 12 different grades.
Even basic economic data are vague and often dubious. Iraq has not conducted a full census of its population since 1987, postponing it repeatedly because of the ethnic and sectarian divisions it would undoubtedly expose. James Hogan of Dar Es Salaam said that the level of imports and exports (and thus even G.D.P.) — which in a normal country would be precisely monitored and recorded at the borders — are largely guesses because of lax, antiquated and probably dishonest reporting. He noted that many businesses and even government agencies still prefer payments in cash, despite enormous efforts by the American government to introduce computerized accounting systems.
“It’s not a shadow economy,” Faisal al-Qaragholi, another former exile turned businessman, told me. “It’s a chaos economy.” I first met Qaragholi in Washington in October 2009, when hundreds of Iraqis and American officials gathered at the Hyatt Regency near Capitol Hill for what was billed as the first Iraqi-American investment conference. Several officials at the time, including Maliki and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, declared Iraq “open for business.” Still-troubled provinces like Anbar, once the heart of the Sunni insurgency, advertised “hidden opportunities.” The conference produced few concrete deals in the end, however, according to Qaragholi and other officials and businessmen.
One reason may be the American government itself, with its complicating laws like the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which forbids the kind of bribe-paying that greases contracts with government ministries. The State Department’s investment climate statement last year noted improved security and rising foreign investment but offered words of caution stark enough to scare off most investors. “Potential investors should prepare themselves for significant security costs; cumbersome and confusing procedures for business visas or new business registration; long payment delays on some Iraqi government contracts; and sometimes unreliable, nontransparent dispute resolution mechanisms. Allegations of corruption are still endemic, and the legacy of central planning and inefficient state-owned enterprises continue to inhibit economic development.”
Qaragholi, though, is as sanguine as he was the first time I met him in Washington. The country, he told me then and repeated now, “will be a gold mine” for the next 50 years as the oil flows and modern, transparent business practices, led by foreign investors, take root. “We will be second to none in the Middle East,” he went on, saying Iraq has more going for it culturally than the Persian Gulf states did when they began their economic expansions a few decades ago. “We have the people, we have the culture and we have the resources to back it up.”
Qaragholi was vague about exactly what business he was in except to say it involved construction and finance. He offers himself as an adviser to any foreigner interested but unsure how to enter the Iraqi market. “You have to have an Iraqi partner, because he knows how to work this,” he explained. “He can speak to people in the ministries.” I did not get the impression that Qaragholi, an impeccable English speaker, meant simply the ability to speak Arabic but more his grasp of the Iraqi mentality.
The Americans, he complained, risked falling behind — not just behind Iraq’s natural trading partners, neighbors like the Turks and Iranians, but also behind the Italians, the French and the South Koreans, all of whom announced more investments in Iraq in 2010 than American companies did. Those deals amounted to nearly a 50 percent increase from the year before. “Excuse my French,” Qaragholi said of the wary Americans who were reluctant to invest in the country they helped destroy, “but they have to have some kind of balls.”