Iraqi architect joins country's rebuilding efforts

Dewan's executive director discusses the challenges of working in Iraq

Executive director of Dewan, Ammar Al Assam.
Executive director of Dewan, Ammar Al Assam.

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As a firm founded in Baghdad in 1971, it is little surprise that Dewan has turned its attention to Iraq as the country gradually rebuilds.

Dewan was recently awarded the contract to develop the area around one of Baghdad’s holiest shrines, Al Kadhimiya, with its proposal winning the praise of Iraqi Prime Minister Noori Al-Mailiki. The firm is now turning its attention to a five star hotel in Baghdad’s green zone, the first to be built since the beginning of the regime of Saddam Hussein.

As executive director of Dewan, Ammar Al Assam – an Iraqi who has lived in Dubai for more than 20 years – feels privileged to be able to contribute to the redevelopment of his homeland, a country he could rarely visit before 2003. He is also quick to point out that with recent elections and ambitious plans; Iraq holds a lot of promise midway through 2010.

“Now things are picking up and now we have had these elections, Iraq has a lot of potential. They have the will and they have the money,” he said.

Religious tourism is one area where the new government is likely to focus its attention, but Iraq’s vast oil reserves too are likely to bring a swathe of foreign money into the country. In order to sustain both these industries the country will need facilities that are so far woefully lacking, as Al Assam points out, that the shrine of Kadhimiya is a case in point.

“Kadhimiya had six million visitors on one day last year, and that is with no infrastructure, no facilities, people were just sleeping on the streets. These sites are important to the government, they are bringing people into the country,” he said.

“At the same time Iraq is signing contracts with oil companies to develop its vast oil reserves.”

Not that developing in Iraq is going to be easy. Aside from the obvious problems with security, Iraq’s government is young and inexperienced, which can lead to delays for developers.

“There are two main challenges, the first is security and the second is the politics,” Al Assam explained.

"The government lacks the ability to make decisions, there are all these different parties fighting for different things and there is all this politics and bureaucracy.

“Iraq follows the old British laws and regulations and as a result it is very bureaucratic.”

Nonetheless, it is positive that in a country that has suffered 30 years of dictatorship and five years of occupation and warfare, corruption is not a major problem.

“It surprised us to some extent,” he said. “All the tender processes have been straight forward, honest and quite transparent actually, which is very encouraging.”

There are other problems too. Land ownership is complicated, as it is often unclear who has rights to it and who needs to be consulted or compensated. Families who may have land confiscated under Saddam Hussein’s regime may now need consultation and compensation.

But a more obvious concern with developing religious sites such as Al Kadhimiya, Al Assam points out, is history. Every building in the area had to be catalogued and researched to ensure that the developers were not demolishing anything of historical significance.

In terms of effort and organization, Dewan’s development of Al Kadhimiya has not been particularly profitable, but Al Assam argues that companies should not look at Iraq as an opportunity to cash in. In the long term there may be money to be made, but for now architects, engineers, developers and investors need to remember that Iraq is at an early stage of development – investment will be an investment in the future.

“Companies have to go there with the view of not being opportunistic. We gave gone in with the view of having a long term presence in the country. We have to help them gain knowledge and share what we have learned over the past 20 years,” Al Assam said.

 

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