If 2003 was the year of the invasion, 2005 and 2006 the years of internecine fighting and 2007 the year of the Awakening and the surge, 2009 can only bring with it an improvement in fortune. Its flavour will be an optimistic and less martial one, according to officials in the province of Anbar.

“We think this year will be the year of investment, because we have a high level of security now,” says Amer F Awadh, chairman of Al Anbar Investment Commission, which was created last November and has 13 members, all experts in their respective fields.

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The problem, he says, is that the international media has not noticed the improved situation. Indeed, it takes looking beyond the ugly headlines and making a clear-eyed, business-minded assessment to see what Anbar has to offer potential investors now that the dust is clearing (figuratively if not literally, as dust storms remain a nuisance).

 

Plentiful resources

Oil tends to get the most attention but there are more interesting, if less obvious, investment opportunities in Anbar. The governate is blessed with a bevy of natural resources in the form of large, mostly unexploited deposits of natural gas, gypsum, dolomite, phosphate and silica. These minerals have many industrial applications, from glass and cement to roof tiles and fertilizer, making close-to-source production facilities of these materials something worth considering.

“There is a huge market for these materials, inside Iraq and outside,” says Mr Amer.

Anbar once had a world-leading glass factory, and the province’s particular brand of silica makes for extremely high-quality glass – it just needs the expertise and technology of the right foreign investment partner to make the most of it.

For the purpose of rehabilitating such decayed industries, the government is drawing up plans for industrial zones. An industrial city with a residential component sited for a large tract of land off the highway between Fallujah and Baghdad will offer rehabilitated industries a platform for exporting to the US under a bilateral free-trade agreement. Another planned industrial zone, modelled on a zone in Ankara, Turkey, and to be located just west of Ramadi on 350,000 square metres of land given free by the government, will include 846 business sites or workshops as well as services buildings, restaurants, meeting facilities, banquet hall and bank.

“We are giving the land for free to encourage investors and minimise cost to buyers,” says Anbar governor Qasim Al Fahadawi (generally referred to as Governor Qasim).

It seems to be working: he closed a financing deal in July for an engineering group to start work on the project. An investor from Turkey is covering excavation costs.

 

Well positioned

The province borders Saudi Arabia, Syria and Jordan, thus is well positioned to be a trade hub, and improved road security should allow for commercial ties with neighbours to be strengthened. A 500-kilometre main highway connecting Iraq to these other countries traverses Anbar; 80% of Iraq’s trade passes along this highway.

Anbar has agricultural advantages as well that lend themselves naturally to agribusiness activities: wide swathes of arable land with good soil suitable for growing many different types of products, including virgin soil that can be used for seed production; masses of natural herbs in the western desert; a substantial underground water table; and 725 kilometres of the Euphrates River running through it for irrigation. Agribusiness is a high-priority sector for development and a top focus for the provincial government; the establishment of greenhouses for vegetable production is one of many promising possibilities.

“Anbar has a lot of potential – I can see that. But it needs work.

I have done a lot in these three months, and I am already seeing some results, but I need to do more. We are moving fast, but for the big projects we need foreign investment,” says Governor Qasim, a former businessman who took office in April and has moved quickly to smooth relations with the sometimes suspicious Shi’ah-dominated national government, streamline government procedures, stamp out corruption, solidify security gains across the province and, not least, kick-start the struggling economy.

 

Housing shortage

Anbar’s reconstruction and development needs are as vast as its flat horizon. Population growth added to a housing crunch has left the province anywhere from 80,000 to 100,000 units short. All of the housing projects currently under way will not even fill half of the gap, says Governor Qasim. There are ambitious plans for large new developments on the eastern and western shores of Lake Habbaniyah, which will add 16,000 units, ranging from 150 to 600 square metres, and 420 other buildings including offices, schools and educational and health facilities. Schools and hospitals will be private, as will sewage and water services. “It will be a model for privatisation,” says the governor.

Three competitors (one from South Africa, one from South Korea and one is a Jordanian/Kuwaiti company supported by Kuwaiti financiers) are bidding for the project and the government will select one in the next two to three months.

The government is negotiating with investors to build a medical centre in the planned New Fallujah City. After the two new developments are completed they will be connected with another city and a new highway which goes to Baghdad.

For these developments, the government is helping to offset risk for investors by providing insurance for buyers.

 

Commercial demand

In addition to living spaces, commercial centres and civic facilities are also in demand. “We have no malls, but people have money to spend,” says Mr Amer. In every town in Anbar schools, sports clubs and other civic facilities were damaged by fighting and need rebuilding as well as new ones added to cope with population growth.

Even broadcasting investment is both needed and welcome in Anbar. Anbar TV, the first local TV station for the province, started up a year ago with just a few intrepid employees and is desperately in need of funding. Currently it has 50 employees but requires at least 200. Managers say the station needs outside assistance as government funding is inadequate.

Infrastructure badly damaged by the first Gulf War in 1990 and done no favours by years of sanctions and a legacy of corruption needs repairing and upgrading. As an agricultural and industrial economy, Anbar uses a lot of power. Electricity – supplied by the state-owned national company – is coming up 70% short of what is required in Anbar, although three buy-operate-transfer deals have been announced for power stations in the province. The central government has guaranteed to buy power from these companies for 20 years. Water provision is “acceptable – not good, not bad”, says Governor Qasim, but the sewage system is still a problem. The governor wants to build new oil refineries in Haditha and Ramadi too.

 

Building bridges

Work is ongoing on road and rail infrastructure. The new Warrar Bridge, completed in July and spanning 480 metres across an offshoot of the Euphrates River, now links downtown (old) Ramadi with the site of the planned New Ramadi City. Another bridge, to be completed within the next few months, will link the downtown area with outlying rural villages across the Euphrates. “These bridges are important for enlarging the city as well as encouraging investments,” says the governor.

Rail service (passenger and cargo) is operating between Basra and Ramadi, and a new railway station is planned for downtown Ramadi. The governor has convinced the central government to support a railway plan (an idea first studied by the British in the 1930s) that would connect Basra with Syria and Jordan, offering a shortcut to the Mediterranean.

“We will be at the centre of this route – it will kill the transport problem that we have,” says Governor Qasim.

Habbaniyah Airport, a former military airport, will be rehabilitated as a civilian and cargo airport provided it gets investment, allowing easy access to hoped-for new tourism developments around Lake Habbaniyah, as well as the new tourism city that the ministry of tourism is planning on Lake Tharthar, 70 kilometres from Habbaniyah Tourist Village and north of Fallujah.

 

Fighting unemployment

All of this is in aid of Governor Qasim’s determination to attract investment, encourage economic development and wipe out the province’s joblessness problem (there are nearly 20,000 unemployed people in Anbar). “This is my target as governor – to cut the jobless number in order to cut the resources of the terrorists,” he says.

It is, of course, a rather cruel catch-22. Inward investment and the associated jobs influx is needed to improve security, but improved security is needed to attract more investment. The governor intends to keep pressing ahead on both fronts in tandem.

“We have no choice: we have to go this way if we want to engage with the rest of the world,” he says. “We will not look back.”