Construction of a $2.5bn airport and fleet expansion signals intent from the government
After a decade of conflict, Iraq ranks as one of the region’s more unlikely tourism destinations. Yet, Baghdad has signalled its intent with the planned construction of a new $2.5 billion airport near Karbala and significant investment in new aircraft by its beleaguered national carrier, Iraqi Airways.
Given the impact of post-invasion sanctions that put a temporary halt to fleet expansion, it’s elementary that Iraq would position aviation as one of the pillars of its economic expansion strategy.
The Nouri al-Maliki government is making all the right noises: Boeing, Airbus, and Bombardier have been touting large aircraft orders, while the US, Russia, China, and France have been discussing reviving international flight routes, according to Civil Aviation Authority head Nasser Hussein.
Iraqi Airways, Hussein says, will all but have tripled the size of its fleet to 65 aircraft by 2016. Current orders include eight planes from Airbus, multiple Boeing Dreamliners, and five CSeries-100 Bombardier models.
As well as the airport plans for Karbala in the south of Baghdad, another airport project, worth around $600 million, is underway in the Kurdish region of Duhok. It will accommodate one million passengers annually. Karbala’s airport, by comparison, will have capacity for 20 million passengers each year, potentially making it Iraq’s busiest.
Karbala is home to one of Shia Islam’s holiest sites. Iraq is keen to cater to Shia pilgrims — particularly from neighbouring Iran — and is staking its tourism strategy on this approach. Yet, the spectre of sectarian violence that hangs over much of Iraq could put a halt to these plans.
Overall death rates from civil violence have been rising, and while it’s difficult to distinguish between civilian and pilgrim victims, analysts believe the influx of Shia Muslims en route to Karbala will antagonise Sunni militants operating in the country.
“Would [the prospect] of violence effect people coming? They don’t have a lot of choices — they can’t say let’s go to Hawaii or Tahiti, it’s not that type of choice,” says Hamit Dardagan, co-founder of Iraq Body Count and co-director at London-based Oxford Research Group.
“Obviously, Iraq wants to [progress] to a period where people can go out on the streets without [fear of being] bombed. But unfortunately there is always a peak in violence around the time when there are religious pilgrimages in the country. People are targeted, usually Shia pilgrims, we always observe this. Pilgrims travelling to Karbala and Najaf quite possibly numbering in the millions. They’re an easy target.”
Ominously, 2013 is likely to prove the bloodiest year for civilian casualties since 2008. Iraq Body Count estimates there have been 5,000 civilian deaths across the country since the start of the year. That figure surpasses 2011’s total of 4,147, and 2012’s 4,574, providing further evidence of the worsening violence. These statistics should weigh heavily on Iraq’s Shia-led government, particularly as the Syrian crisis bleeds into Iraq and raises fears of greater sectarian bloodshed.
“If there is an endgame in Syria, there’s going to be a lot of Islamist fighters with plenty of hardware and no battles to be fought,” says Greg Ohannessian, a Dubai-based analyst working for the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA). “Ideologically, they could turn around to neighbouring states, Iraq being at greatest risk.”
Despite this, Ohannessian is optimistic about the opportunities presented by the planned tourism megaprojects. He believes the job creation opportunities they present will provide Al-Maliki with an opportunity to reengage with the country’s Sunni population.
“What this looks like domestically is Al-Maliki making concessions to the Shia people. And right now the Sunni population is the most disillusioned — that’s a dangerous prospect,” he says.
“The government is catering to Shias and that can be another factor to push previously moderate Sunnis to supporting extremist acts.
“The government has to engage Sunni communities in southern Iraq and ensure they feel they are part of the process. In the southwest of Iraq you’ve got quite a few oil fields, [they’re] probably the biggest employers and there is a lot of unrest there at the moment,” he says. “Salaries are low and unemployment is high. Any projects that address these issues will prove helpful.”
Baghdad’s strategy demonstrates a long-term approach to economic recovery, says UK-based aviation analyst John Strickland. “The government clearly understands how important aviation is to Iraq’s development. Although unrest is slowly worsening, Al-Maliki will be provided the opportunity to unite Iraq by creating new employment opportunities,” he says.
“Airports are a massive driver of government revenues in the 21st century. In Dubai for example, aviation represents 25 or 35 percent of economic activity.
“I appreciate the sensitivity between different groups, but I think any big project, by careful consideration, is going to generate non-partisan jobs. It’s the perfect platform for long-term employment.”
Joe Lipscombe is a reporter at Bloomberg Businessweek Middle East
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