Iraq: Anbar’s post-ISIL reconstruction spawns autonomy debate

It is one of Iraq’s smallest provincial capitals, but Ramadi could soon boast the largest shopping mall in the country.

The development, which will span 125,000 square metres (1.4 million square feet) once complete, is one of dozens of investment projects that have transformed this part of Anbar province since the ISIL (ISIS) armed group was defeated here in 2016.

“These projects are needed in this province, and according to our feasibility study, they will be successful,” said Maher al-Fahdawi, an engineer at Al Qasas, the investment company building the mall. “We believe Anbar has a good future.”

Unlike remote areas close to Anbar’s border with Syria, which were not freed from ISIL until late 2017, few overt signs remain of the destruction the war wreaked on Ramadi and nearby Fallujah.

Traffic in the city centre glides along recently paved roads. Residential compounds are mushrooming on the outskirts. Anbar’s first five-star hotel, complete with luxury villas featuring private pools, is rising on the shores of the Euphrates.

Construction projects have created jobs at a time when Iraq suffers from a severe economic downturn and soaring poverty rates.

Most are funded by private investors, drawn by relative stability and encouraged by an ambitious local government that wants to manage its own affairs.

“There are more investments opportunities than in other provinces,” said Mahdi Saleh al-Nouman, director of Anbar’s Investment Commission, itself housed in a brand new building. “If we get more authority, it will help us make great leaps in next few years.”

Nouman said the absence of armed groups, known to extort business owners in other parts of Iraq, as well as relative social cohesion among Anbar’s population has created a business-friendly environment.Anbar’s investment portfolio is worth about $2bn and focused primarily on non-oil sectors such as housing and commerce. The local government wants to triple that figure in the coming years by attracting foreign investors, especially from the Gulf, to develop the province’s untapped gas and mineral resources.

“We received many proposals from Gulf Nations for the energy sector,” said Ali Farhan, the governor of Anbar, who just returned from a trip to Dubai where he met prospective investors.

“But because of our limited authority and the complicated procedures of the central government, things have been delayed.”

Demands for greater autonomy

The push for more investment underpins the province’s ambitions for greater autonomy from the government in the capital Baghdad.

Under current laws, the local government can award investment licenses for projects up to $250m. Anything above that amount – as well as projects considered to be of strategic importance for the country, such as energy and electricity – must be approved by the central government.

That involves navigating an infamously cumbersome and corrupt bureaucracy, which has placed Iraq 172 out of 190 on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business rankings.

Anbar officials say much of the red tape could be eliminated if the province was allowed to deal with investors directly. But analysts say devolving powers to local entities could compound mismanagement and corruption, especially if mechanisms to ensure accountability remain weak at the local level.

Demands for greater autonomy

The push for more investment underpins the province’s ambitions for greater autonomy from the government in the capital Baghdad.

Under current laws, the local government can award investment licenses for projects up to $250m. Anything above that amount – as well as projects considered to be of strategic importance for the country, such as energy and electricity – must be approved by the central government.

That involves navigating an infamously cumbersome and corrupt bureaucracy, which has placed Iraq 172 out of 190 on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business rankings.

Anbar officials say much of the red tape could be eliminated if the province was allowed to deal with investors directly. But analysts say devolving powers to local entities could compound mismanagement and corruption, especially if mechanisms to ensure accountability remain weak at the local level.

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