Iraq's investment potential comes to the fore

The war-torn country is slowly becoming a safer place to trade with big corporations starting to see some opportunities there.

A couple of years ago, when Hussain Qaragholi travelled in Iraq, it would always be in one of at least two cars, each with two guards and two drivers.

Roadside bombings and kidnappings of foreign workers were routine and travelling with other businessmen in larger groups would have made a tempting target.

Times have changed. When he arrives in the country this week, Mr Qaragholi says security arrangements will be "minimal". His visit is part of a new partnership between Phoenix Capital, the investment bank he founded in Baghdad, and Taylor-DeJongh, a financial services company based in Washington.

"I don't really have a need for [security]," he says. "We've seen a tremendous improvement over the past 24 months."

The new joint venture, TDJ Phoenix Capital, is the first bank to link Washington and Baghdad and seeks to stimulate foreign investors' interest in Iraq as the security situation further improves.

Mr Qaragholi believes the most lucrative opportunities will initially involve serving as a go-between for foreign and domestic companies wishing to tap into government contracts for infrastructure and oil projects.

Iraq's wealth of natural resources is the main factor exciting overseas investors. Last month, the country's oil minister, Dr Hussain al Shahristani, raised estimates of the country's oil reserves to 143.1 billion barrels. Oil production and related industries such as power generation and ports are ripe for investment.

"Oil production … requires building up the power capacity for the country," says Mr Qaragholi. "It'll require building up the ports, it'll require putting in pipelines to export that additional production."

The November 1 siege of a Baghdad church by al Qa'eda-linked gunmen, which left 52 people dead, was a bloody reminder of the country's instability. Deaths from bombings and other attacks were down 35 per cent in September, according to Iraq's health ministry, but still totalled 120 for the month.

Corruption is another concern, especially in the realm of public procurement. Iraq ranked 175th on Transparency International's most recent survey of least corrupt nations, only beating Afghanistan, Myanmar and Somalia.

"The challenges ahead for Iraq in managing economic recovery and implementing governance reforms remain considerable," said a report published in the summer by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

In addition, the country's political impasse has left it without a central government since the elections in March. Even so, Mr Qaragholi says his company has identified opportunities to advise many of the country's provincial governments, including those in Basra, Anbar and Kurdistan.

A former investment banker with Merrill Lynch and Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank, Mr Qaragholi began planning his part in Iraq's reconstruction at the time of the US-led invasion in 2003. Since then, he has advised a number of governments on Iraq, including those of the UAE, the US and the UK.

He says partnerships between private enterprises and development organisations such as the World Bank will be pivotal in raising finances to rebuild Iraq.

"These organisations are playing a key role and are giving further credit enhancement to any deals that require financing," Mrs Qaragholi says.

Iraq has had an influx of foreign investment in recent months despite the political turmoil, bringing down spreads on its credit default swaps, which reflect the country's likelihood of default, to between about 410 and 460 basis points.

The UAE has been among those investors looking at the country. Last month, Invest AD, an Abu Dhabi investment company, announced a fund to target opportunities in Iraq.

It was soon joined by Gulf companies including MerchantBridge, a private equity fund, and Northern Gulf Partners, an investment company, which also announced new deals to develop the country's economy.

But scepticism remains as to Iraq's readiness to emerge as a centre for investment.

"Iraq has great potential but I think the emphasis should be on the word potential because it might not be reached any time soon," says Giyas Gokkent, the chief economist at National Bank of Abu Dhabi.

Mr Gokkent says the country's vast oil reserves, untapped markets and a large, growing population pose great opportunities for banks. Foreign banks, including HSBC, have recently increased operations in the country to tap government investment in infrastructure.

But large-scale investment may be some way off, Mr Gokkent says. To start with, "people are probably putting their toes in the water", he says.