Slowly, Baghdad Opens to Business

Al-Eid Road Group is looking for business. And what better place to do it than the opening day of the Baghdad Business to Business Expo? The construction company's 31-year-old commercial manager, Taham Lifta, smartly dressed in a maroon v-neck sweater over a silvery-blue tie, was there to speak to potential clients, but he took the time to show me a couple slide shows from Al-Eid's recent projects on his laptop. As part of a U.S. Army contract last year, it re-bricked cracked sidewalks on Baghdad's still tense Haifa Street. ("It was a battlefield," Lifta says, meaning it literally.) And the company recently finished building the Baghdad Zoo a new set of bathrooms. Yet so far for 2008, Al-Eid, worth $2.5 million, has no work scheduled. "But there has been a lot of interest today," says Lifta hopefully. "And we can work in hot zones."

Around 260 exhibitor booths like Lifta's took over the Rasheed Hotel's ground floor this morning, each manned with company representatives handing out promotional brochures, fliers and gifts. (I walked out with two 2008 wall calendars, a notepad, two packs of Iraqi-made Sumer brand cigarettes and a mini candy bar.) The the variety of companies was impressive—banks, hotels, tobacco growers, soda makers, pre-fab home builders, security and construction contractors. According to the Iraqi American Chamber of Commerce, the host organization of the Expo, nearly 8,000 business people registered to attend. Its popularity is no surprise: Baghdad has not hosted anything like this in nearly a decade.

Even U.S. Commerce Secretary, Carlos Gutierrez, was plugging the event when he visited Baghdad last week. While praising what he called Iraq's "flourishing entrepreneurialism," Gutierrez noted that there were 30,000 registered businesses in Iraq in 2007, up from just 8,000 in 2003. About 100,000 micro-loans have been granted with a repayment rate of 100 percent. Exports last year totaled $28 billion; four years before, they had added up to just $8.5 billion. "This is a window of opportunity," Gutierrez told a group of Iraqi and American reporters. "I believe Iraq can be one of the fastest growing economies in the world."

It will likely take more than a Business Expo to make Gutierrez's prediction come true. But achieving the organizers' ambitious goal to generate $500 million in new business activity and create more than 10,000 new jobs this year would certainly be a big step forward. And there are positive signs. Basim Abdul Qader, a financial services agent, opened up his wallet to show me the first Iraqi bank-issued MasterCard. (Even if peace is something money can't buy, it's useful for everything else.) Qader is hoping to boost their use by selling wireless card readers, which many Expo attendees stopped to hear more about. Given that there is no shortage of streets in Baghdad that need re-paving, companies like Al-Eid shouldn't have to wait too much longer to find work this year.