“My friend, Iraq is a rich, virgin country!” one of its richest men, Namir al-Akabi, told me with a startling enthusiasm when I met him earlier this year at his office in Baghdad. Akabi is the chairman of the Almco Group of Companies, a conglomerate he built from nothing in the wake of the American invasion in 2003. What makes Iraq’s economic potential so great, he explained, despite everything, is not just its abundant natural resources — it is the shattered state of Iraq itself: the damage done by the American war, but also the long, steady decay under Saddam Hussein, from the war with Iran that began in 1980 through the invasion of Kuwait a decade later and the crushing international sanctions that followed the first gulf war. The country has been decimated, and therein lies its potential.
Like many of Iraq’s wealthiest men, Akabi grew up in exile: his family left in 1970, when he was just 7, in the early days of Baath Party rule. He lived first in Jordan, then London, then Moscow. He was back in Jordan building housing when the United States invaded his homeland and made him a very, very rich man. “How many five-star restaurants are there in Baghdad?” he asked as we drove in a convoy of Chevy Suburbans through the bleak streets and highways. “None! I’ve tasted them all.” Houses, hospitals, roads, bridges, electricity, communication networks, hotels, supermarkets and, not least, pipelines and refineries for the coming boom in oil and natural-gas production. “Iraq needs everything!” he said. “Anything you can think of. A car rental! Everything you take for granted in the West.”
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.