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Entrepreneurs take a risk on a safer Iraq

An Iraqi American and partners open a hotel and business center at the Baghdad airport, seeking foreign firms.

November 08, 2008|Saif Rasheed | Rasheed is a Times staff writer.

BAGHDAD — The hotel receptionists from the Philippines wear gray blazers and smiles. Bellhops in gold-buttoned vests wait for luggage to carry. Plastic red dandelions and white roses decorate the shiny white linoleum corridor. The bar is stocked with beer and whiskey, and you can wander into the hair salon if you need a trim before clinching that million-dollar deal.

Inside a compound at the Baghdad international airport, a few entrepreneurs are betting that boom times are around the bend. As the saying goes, if you build it, they will come. In this case, a British company and an American firm opened the Iraqi Airways International Business Center and the separate Baghdad International Airport Hotel on Friday in hopes of drawing private investors and corporations to this war-ravaged country.

"We want the international businessmen to take us as an example for them. We took the risk, so what is the point of not coming here? It is getting better and better every day," said Ammar Urfali, an Iraqi American whose company, Sigma, is one of the partners in the project.

Some would call Urfali and his colleagues gamblers in a land where ethnic and sectarian tensions reign, corruption remains entrenched, and private enterprise is limited mostly to reconstruction projects funded by the U.S. and Iraqi governments.

But Urfali is not fazed. On Friday, he cut a red ribbon and announced grandly, "Baghdad is open for business."

Urfali, who returned to Baghdad after Saddam Hussein's fall, did not seem worried that the firms had yet to find tenants for their eight floors of office space in a solemn-looking brown Iraqi Airways building. On opening day, a few Japanese, Ukrainian and American guests came to the hotel, built by the U.S. Army and then furbished by Urfali and his fellow investors.

Urfali's firm has teamed with a British company named Veritas and the Iraqi government. Sigma and Veritas hold a three-year lease on the facilities and have invested $10 million. The government will receive half of their profit.

The center's pitch is this: If Baghdad remains dangerous, bring the business meeting to the heavily guarded airport compound. If visitors need to head into Baghdad, the center can hire a private security firm to drive them. If someone needs to exercise, the hotel has a gym. If a person falls sick, it has a clinic. If a businessperson needs a interpreter, the staff can supply one.

"Anybody who wants to do business and stay or have a meeting in Iraq, it is better for him to come here. Better than going out to the red zone," said Veritas' regional director, Jabbar Seigh, using the U.S. military's term for the world outside the fortified enclaves in Baghdad.

Most members of the hotel's staff come from the Philippines, the source of many immigrant workers in the Persian Gulf region, but some Iraqis have been hired. Maiyada Wahid, 28, had been working at the airport's duty-free shop, which sells electronics and khaki clothing, popular with contractors. Wahid saw a job as a hotel receptionist as a good opportunity.

"They were looking for someone with English, computer expertise and, of course, nice looks," she said, dressed in the hotel's blazer-and-miniskirt uniform.

Even as she raved about the job, she acknowledged that she still did not feel safe enough to go home into the city every day. Worried about being targeted for working with foreigners, she visits her family only once a month.

The investors believe the payoff could be huge despite the slow start. Its manager, Maurey Bond, said he had already received calls from European and Chinese firms. American companies were calling less.

"Iraq in the next 10 to 20 years will be the point of attraction for all international business in the world, so it is better to come here now than after a year, because the chances might be less then," Bond said.

"The risk before was to come to Iraq," he added. "Now the risk is not coming and missing the chance."

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