Dear Investors and Friends,
As part of our continuing on the ground research, AFC Iraq Fund CIO Ahmed Tabaqchali reports on his year of living in Iraq. All photos are by Asia Frontier Capital, unless otherwise noted.
I wrote the last Iraq travel reports in January and February 2018 on the advice of a client who suggested writing for those who know Iraq only from what they see and hear in the media, which, until recently, was mostly focused on the violence that engulfed the country. The same client suggested that I follow up with another report reflecting my experience of living in Iraq to complement these reports.
Following the travel reports’ visit last year, I was offered the opportunity to teach a few hours a week at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani (AUIS) as part of my research on Iraq’s economy post ISIS at the Institute of Regional and International Studies (IRIS), at which I am a Senior Fellow. I gladly took up the opportunity and am currently an Adjunct Assistant Professor within the Business Department. The few hours of teaching each week left me with plenty of time to research Iraq and its economy from a new perspective that both complimented my existing one and enhanced my performance as CIO of the AFC Iraq Fund. It has been such a rewarding experience that I will extend it for another year.
In this report I will try to give the AFC travel report readers a sense of the change that Iraq has gone through over the last eighteen months – a significant social and economic transformation, brought on by the combination of the improved security and an expansionary budget by a government flush with the bounty bequeathed by higher oil prices.
The end of the ISIS conflict, in late 2017, brought with it an unprecedented return to security that led to a social change that is almost impossible to explain, especially to those who have not been to Iraq, without putting things in a recent historic perspective. Nowhere is this sense of change more pronounced than in Baghdad, home to almost eight million people or about 20% of the country’s total population.
The insurgency that began soon after the invasion in 2003, and morphed into a full-scale civil war by 2005-2006, led to three drastic security measures in Baghdad. The first of which was the sealing of what has become known as the Green Zone, the seat of the government, some foreign embassies, and international organizations. This was followed by: the erection of thousands of blast walls and Bremer-Walls (portable, steel-reinforced concrete blast walls) that separated the Green Zone from the rest of Baghdad. In addition, hundreds of streets in the city, both major and minor were diverted, others were cut in the middle, and blocked certain neighbourhoods off from others. Also, hundreds of security check-points were setup throughout the city.
The result was that the streets of Baghdad mutated into an impossible maze with maddening traffic jams. As the cars in use have more than doubled since 2003, while roads were cut in half and crucial thoroughfares that passed through the Green Zone were reduced to a plethora of diversions. The last time the country saw city planning on any scale was in the early 1980’s when the population was less than 15 million versus the current 40 million. Combined with bombings, both roadside bombs and suicide bombings, and other attacks, life in Baghdad was frozen with the all the negative spill overs on social and economic life.
The defeat of ISIS in late 2017 led to increased security, and normal life returned gradually to the city as Baghdadis resumed their long forgotten active social lives. Many friends who would only entertain or meet at daytime during 2013-2016, began to do so at night in the many restaurants that dot Baghdad, both in the many new malls and in the commercial streets of the city. Over the last few months these social activities bloomed into the old Baghdadi late social nights with restaurants open for business until well after midnight. Something which I enjoyed in early December of last year, attending a jam packed and lively concert by famous Iraqi singer, Ilhaam Al Madfai, at the prestigious Hunting Club in Al Mansour district. I was still hungry after the concert, and together with my brother went on an after a midnight exploration and opted for the “Al Bawadi Kebab” , a famous traditional kebab restaurant, on the other side of the city, in Al Karadah district. The kebab was awesome and so was the Iraqi style tea , that we continued sipping until the restaurant closed, but not before taking photos with the staff. Having made friends with the taxi driver, we were invited for breakfast at another traditional restaurant “Al Baghdadi Kuba” for Kuba, a concoction of fried minced meat, fat, raisins within a pastry made of crushed grains or grit and bulgur and cooked in meat stew.