The Four Pillars of Iraq’s Reconstruction

Depending on how you look at it, $30 billion is either a vast sum of money or nowhere near enough. That was the amount pledged at a conference in Kuwait last month on reconstructing Iraq. But after the devastation of the 2003 invasion, the long years of sectarian conflict and then the war against ISIS, large parts of the country are shattered. The World Bank has estimated that Iraq will need $88 billion, just in the next five years, to reconstruct damaged infrastructure, to say nothing of caring for the displaced and the injured.

Yet the magnitude of the sums involved obscures a much more complex reality. Money is only one aspect of what Iraq needs, but, like all aspects of Iraq post-invasion, it is heavily politicized. Consider just two aspects: where the money is coming from and where it ought to go.

The biggest pledged funds at the investment conference in Kuwait came from Turkey, a total of $5 billion. Smaller sums of just over $1 billion came from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait. The US, rather astonishingly, given its historical responsibility, pledged nothing, although it did offer some financing for American companies looking to invest.

But overall, the countries that would perhaps be expected to reconstruct Iraq – and see a significant stake in doing so – would be the Gulf countries. Yet Sunni Arab countries are unwilling to pledge significant amounts of money until they are sure what the composition of Iraq’s politics will be. All remember the deeply sectarian years of Nouri Al Maliki, when Sunni Iraqis were so marginalized that it created the resentment that ultimately allowed ISIS to thrive. Until that issue is resolved – and there will be elections this summer – many countries will be wary of contributing funds.

Look also at where the money ought to go. The areas that need reconstruction in Iraq are, broadly, the Sunni areas. Mosul, so heavily destroyed in the war to uproot ISIS, is predominantly a Sunni city, as are many of the areas to the northwest of Iraq where ISIS were holed up. By contrast, the predominantly Shia areas of Iraq, running southeast from Baghdad through Najaf and to Basra, were well-defended by Iraq’s army and escaped ISIS’s destruction. The numbers don’t tell the whole story: not only does Iraq’s politics sway those who donate, but those who most need the donations may not get them because of politics.

Reconstructing Iraq will take more than merely repairing buildings. It will mean reconstructing the much more fragile bonds that hold the politics and society of Iraq together. It will mean seeking consensus and building alliances, at home and abroad. In essence, it will mean repairing many of the pillars of Iraqi society whose disrepair first led to the wars.

The first of these pillars is political. Iraq’s government in the years before and after the US invasion veered between extremes of authoritarianism and sectarianism. It was only after the cost of such sectarianism became apparent that politicians, particular Haider Al Abadi, began to understand the need for painful reconciliation. That reconciliation has not yet happened, but it must: if Sunni Iraqis are not given a stake in the country, and if Baghdad cannot find an equitable arrangement with the Kurds, the same issues of festering resentment and exclusion will return.

The political aspect also involves regional countries. Since Saudi Arabia and Iraq reestablished ties in October, there has been a warming of ties with Sunni Gulf states, who were previously wary of Baghdad’s ties with Iran. That rapprochement must continue, even if Iraq appears determined not to fall into either the Iranian or the Arab Gulf “camp.”

Rebuilding the politics leads to the second pillar, which is the necessity of rebuilding the economy. New office buildings will be required across Iraq; factories will need to be rebuilt. Iraq’s businesses and industries have been hit hard by a three-pronged attack: the destruction of their premises, the loss of their human resources and the attendant collapse of the economy, which removed their customer base. Iraq is blessed to have vast oil resources, but is cursed with the same, because the government hardly needs to expand the tax base with such revenues.

Corruption is another significant barrier. In the discussion around the Kuwait donor conference, it was often quoted that the NGO Transparency International had ranked Iraq the 10th most corrupt country in the world in 2016. And that ranking is borne out by the experience of those who have tried to conduct business in the country in recent years: the paperwork and the money necessary to grease the bureaucratic wheels make establishing a business arduous and almost prohibitively expensive.

Linked to removing corruption and barriers to business is the third pillar, which is the legal system. A legal system that is transparent, or at least moving in that direction, is essential to ensuring all Iraqis feel they can trust the justice system and, by extension, the government. The same is true for foreign investors: if foreign companies feel sure that their investments will be protected, they will be more likely to invest.

The last pillar is the most important one, without which none of the others can succeed. It is the human aspect, the most complex of all.

At one point, nearly 40 percent of Iraqis lived under ISIS’s rule, almost 10 million people. Three million were displaced, and remain so. Despite the stirring slogan of the military campaign that liberated Mosul – called “We are coming, Nineveh” by the Iraqi army – the city was left under ISIS rule for nearly three years.

Nor were ISIS the only ones with blood on their hands. Iraqis, Sunni and Shia, Arab and Kurdish, attacked each other, burned homes and killed families. In the darkest days of sectarian violence, neighbors turned on each other. These incidents are not easily forgotten. There will inevitably be some who seek revenge. There are many more who still have a festering distrust of the Baghdad government.

It is these bonds that will be the hardest to rebuild, and Iraq’s people will have a long way to go to forgive. The rest of the world must help: it was, after all, an outside invasion that first shattered Iraq, and then an influx of foreign fighters that swelled the ranks of ISIS.

Iraq remains fortunate that it still has considerable natural resources, but the pillars of Iraqi society that need to be rebuilt go far beyond just pumping oil. Billions of dollars are just the beginning; the real task ahead for Iraq cannot be measured merely in money.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.