Approaching Basra from the air, you are left with two distinct impressions. The first is beige. As far as the eye can see, the landscape is remorseless beige, broken only by the distant flares of gas out in the oil fields and the resulting plumes of black smoke. The second is the almost unnatural flatness of the landscape, like a vast beige billiard table stretching towards Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
This was my first visit to Basra since 2004. The change is remarkable. Back then the region was on the edge of descending into a prolonged period of insurgency and violence that prevented any meaningful rebuilding of the economy. This time the mood is different. The security situation remains challenging. But the overall environment is much more permissive and the remarkable activity underway in the oil fields is set to transform Basra, Iraq and the region.
On this trip we were able to travel in to the city and visit a date farm, a mosque and a shopping centre. Despite sitting literally on a reservoir of vast hydro-carbon wealth, Basra remains a poor, crumbling city with low-grade public services and high unemployment. But there are signs of renewed commercial life and the place has a bustling, purposeful air. You pass newly restored municipal parks and see uniformed school children on their way home from school – the crispness of their uniforms in stark contrast to the decrepitude of many of the buildings and the piles of rubbish littering the streets. In 2004 there was a sullen, listless feel to the place; superficially, at least, that has changed for the better.
The visit to the Mosque was fascinating. It is enormous, built for four thousand worshippers. We were shown around in the late afternoon just as the call to prayer was getting underway. As we left, the first men were arriving for evening prayers (women have a separate entrance) and there was a distinct sense of a community rebuilding the routine fabric of normal life. Next door is a newly built indoor market and here again you see young families going about their everyday life without that sense of menace and threat hanging in the air. Other parts of the city are less prosperous and still prone to outbreaks of violence. But in our brief glimpse at life in Basra, there was much room for encouragement.
Next day out in the oilfields, the changes underfoot in the local economy were manifest. We visited an oil services camp just over an hour from the city. On the way you see the signs of new industrial activity: existing wells being refitted, depots being built and new drills and other equipment being delivered and assembled ready to move into the Rumailla oil field to meet ambitious new production targets.
All of this activity creates enormous expectations; expectations that very soon the people of Basra and the surrounding region will be sharing in the vast riches now being removed from under their feet. At present, much of the focus is on the engineering and logistic challenges but the social consequences will be far-reaching and vexed. Inevitably, in a region as poor as this, there will always be a lag between the flow of oil and grassroots communities feeling the benefits. But given the phenomenal potential of Iraq’s known reserves to propel the country into the super-league of petroleum exporters, it must be right that basic social stability is secured by an early equitable distribution of this natural bounty.
The speed with which the area is changing is mind-boggling and we have had to turn on a sixpence to meet the demands of our clients. It has been a Herculean effort. We now employ over six hundred people in and around Basra of which seventy percent are Iraqi. This is as it should be and we will see our business there gradually become an Iraqi-run operation in the coming years. To this end we have just incorporated AnnaPurna Consulting locally as an Iraqi company. We will call it Arith Sommer – meaning Land of the Kings.