Hope ahead for Baghdad’s future

Hope ahead for Baghdad’s future

From the 1950s to the 1970s, Baghdad was on the path towards modernization and prosperity. The decades of conflict that followed left the once vibrant city in stagnation. However, things could finally be looking up for the beleaguered capital.

In the 1950s, under the rule of the Hashemite monarchy of Faisal II, Iraq was an emerging center of tourism and commerce. Powered by the revenue of the Iraq Petroleum Company, Iraq’s last king encouraged grandiose projects, such as the ‘Plan for Greater Baghdad’ collaboration with American architect Frank Llyod Wright.

Wright’s urban designs, including the Baghdad Opera House, were unrealized, as King Faisal II’s assassination in 1958 led to international isolation and Baghdad’s status steadily declined. It is possible for Baghdad to ever return to the beacon of culture and promise it once was?

With population of 7.26 million, Baghdad is growing rapidly. The city’s infrastructure still lags behind in basic services and electrical grid does not meet the demand. Flooding is also a frequent occurrence due to inadequate drainage.

The end of the curfew, ordered by Prime Minister Al-Abadi on February 8th, signals that change is in the air. Road blocks, check points, and the concrete barriers are starting to dwindle. The new PM is pushing hard for economic reform. At an investment conference last fall, PM Al-Abadi said the government was restructuring several state-owned companies. This move, which includes privatization, is indeed a promising sign compared to that of former PM Nouri al-Maliki’s term.

Dr. Thikra Alwash, was recently appointed by PM Al-Abadi as the mayor. This is remarkable given that none of the senior ministers or regional governor posts are occupied by women. Even more remarkable is that Dr. Alwash actually has the right credentials for her job. She is a civil engineer Ph.D. and was previously the Director of Projects Department in the Ministry of Higher Education.

Iraqis are once again comfortable venturing out into the city’s social scene. The Palestine Hotel hosts parties on the top floor served with top shelf liquor. However, much of the city’s partiers rely on private club membership in places like the Mansur district to provide personal safety for annual fees that reach up to $2,000.

In 2012, Baghdad hosted the Arab League, a major regional event that saw $500 million spent on renovating roads, hotels, and beautification. The National Museum of Iraq just reopened to the public after having been closed since the US invasion of 2003. Approximately 4,300 recovered looted artifacts are back on display. This is the Iraqi government’s response to the horrendous destruction by Islamic State in February of pieces dating back to the Assyrian Empire in Mosul. Many items are suspected to be destined to the informal market.

Fashion competitions returned in 2013, the same year that festivals marked Baghdad as the Capital of Arab Culture. Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here, a coalition of book sellers based in Boston, aim to revive Baghdad’s intellectual haven of the same name. Consumer confidence is clearly rising as people are spending more on foreign holidays.

Other major developments include The Baghdad Gate Housing Project ($238M), Bismayah New City Project scheduled to be completed by the end of 2015 ($7.75B), and the Madinat Al Mustaqbal (City of the Future) housing project financed by UAE developer Bloom Properties ($15B).

Many of these projects include the implementation of green building standards that will reduce power consumption by 30 to 40 percent. 22 development projects are currently under way to modernize the capital. New hotels, hospitals, roads, as well as a new communications network valued at $189 million.

The government is struggling to navigate the low oil market in preparing 2015’s national budget. The Iraqi Ministry of Oil is confident oil prices are growing. February’s government oil profits were just shy of $3.5 billion.

The new government in Baghdad also seems to be taking a more practical approach to dealing with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). The Iraqi government has finalized a deal with the KRG to share oil revenues but momentum for Kurdish independence is still building. If Baghdad plays its cards right, repairing the relationship with the KRG will have enormous economic benefits in the long run for the country as a whole.

Relations between Baghdad and Tehran will continue to strengthen, after all the two countries do share a 906 mile border. Visas are now no longer required for citizens traveling to either country. Bilateral trade, tourism, and security cooperation will no doubt steadily increase.

Despite this, the Arab Gulf States must avoid viewing relations with the Iraqi government through the prism of sectarianism. Iraq is fiercely nationalistic and whether or not it permanently falls into the emerging Shia Crescent should not stop the Gulf States from engagement with Iraq.

The world is watching how the government’s handling of the situation in the northwestern region plays out. In the meantime, most Baghdadis remain determined and defy the notion that the city’s will is broken. Social media activists were quick to spread the hashtag #Baghdadisfine after the start of last summer’s security crisis. In the coming decades, corruption will be the bigger enemy than the security situation. The quiet influx of trade, reform, and political change may be laying the groundwork for a new era of prosperity and calm long desired by the people of Iraq’s capital.

 

About Author

Chris Solomon

Chris Solomon is the GRI Guest Post Editor and a Senior Analyst. He has supported several US government-funded international development programs in the Middle East and Africa throughout his professional career. He has also been a guest lecturer at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy on the U.S. strategy to combat ISIS. Christopher holds a master’s degree in Public and International Affairs from the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA) at the University of Pittsburgh. Follow him on Twitter @Solomon_Chris.