BAGHDAD, IRAQ, January 2008
House prices on the up and increased banking business are not readily associated with Iraq. Yet as Humphrey Hawksley reports, there are entrepreneurs who see good times in the horizon.
“This is the entrance hall,” said Naimah Abdul Jabbah, throwing open a huge pair of wooden double doors.
“How much?”, I asked.
“$1m. Maybe some negotiation. But $1m, I reckon.”
He turned to my interpreter to confirm the dollar exchange rate to the dinar, because in recent months Iraq’s currency has been creeping up in value.
Naimah, in his early 40s, is a leading Iraqi estate agent.
He took over the business from his father and talks of the glory days of the 1980s when Iraq dreamt of becoming a business centre and a playground of the Middle East.
He now sees a glimpse of the good times coming back again.
We were in a large detached house in a fashionable Baghdad suburb, standing under a dust-caked chandelier and next to floor-to-ceiling windows with the top half blocked out in case of a rocket attack or bombing.
“Since the drop in violence,” I asked “how much have prices gone up?”
He reached for his ringing mobile phone and switched to Arabic.
“I’m with some people now, but I can make it at 1300,” he said, fixing up his next meeting.
Then, he picked up where we left off, “I’m told our prices are reaching those in Dubai.”
“But they don’t get bombed in Dubai.”
“I know,” he said amid peels of laughter.
“But Iraq, it’s a beautiful place. Many people want to be here.”
Just over a year ago, President George W Bush confounded his Iraq war critics by sending more troops to the country, instead of withdrawing them as much of America was demanding.
The plan is called the “surge” and in the past few months, its impact is being felt.
US and newly-trained Iraqi troops go into neighbourhoods, drive out insurgents, stay there, win round the local people and begin development programmes.
It is not all working. Bombers slip through.
There are daily killings. This is a country still very much at war.
But amid it, many Iraqis have a new spring in their step.
Buoyant property prices might be one result, just as the jumping, bustling shopping streets in central Baghdad are another – often so packed that you have to jostle your way through, past clothes stalls, shops of electronic gadgets and trolleys brimming with bright, fresh fruit.
Some of those oranges, bananas, apricots and apples find their way into the window display of the MeshMesha fruit juice and pastry bar run by Ahmed Sabah and his extended family.
Young nephews and cousins, dressed in smart, orange, sports shirts with the MeshMesha logo – which actually means Apricot – blend delicious drinks of fresh fruit for a steady stream of customers – Sunni, Shia, Kurds, Christians.
No-one seems to care as they sit at minimalist tables watching the world go by.
“When it’s safe outside, of course business is better,” said Ahmed.
“I have four branches – one we’ve had to close because it was in a violent neighbourhood, but once the war is over we can spread the chain throughout Iraq.”
The MeshMesha chain supports five families that between them are raising 25 children still at school and it employs a couple of dozen of its youngsters in the fruit juice bars.
Return of the ATM?
Without work and a sense of the future, many young men head off to join a militia.
“Your money,” I asked. “Do you keep it in cash, put it in the bank? How does that work?”
“In a bank,” said Ahmed. “And we exchange some into US dollars.”
One of Iraq’s biggest private banks has a luxuriously designed office above the Baghdad Stock Exchange and I asked a senior executive how business was now compared to those glory days of the 1980s that Naimah, the estate agent, had spoken about.
“People didn’t trust the banks, then,” said the financier Mohammed Issa.
His accent was East Coast American and he wore a brown suit with a brightly coloured open-necked shirt.
He would have a panoramic view across Baghdad except the window was blocked by glass cabinets with ornamental displays – again to shield against a bomb attack.
“We had, maybe 4,000 clients under Saddam. Now we have 50,000,” he explained.
“We’ve just set up Internet banking so our customers don’t have to risk getting bombed by going to a branch.”. He paused for a moment. “Yes, once the war’s over, we’ll have our ATM machines throughout the country.”
In the afternoon we were driving back to the office past what we thought was a routine check-point.
A van had been stopped.
Men in military uniforms waved guns holding open the vehicle’s sliding door.