Published January 27, 2013
DAVOS, Switzerland – Iraqi-American Wadie Habboush was working for a blue-chip U.S. law firm when the call to return to his roots found him embarking on a grand project -- rebuilding Basra.
His family has a history in the construction and manufacturing businesses, but their way of doing business did not jibe with Saddam Hussein's, so they left Iraq decades ago. Habboush grew up in Kuwait, and was educated in the United States.
He is now folding all his life experience into his work, helping to drum up investment in the energy, manufacturing and infrastructure businesses in Iraq, and has set up a company to partner with foreign investors. He helps them to develop and execute projects. I met up with him at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
"The U.S. invested a lot of time and resources helping the Iraqis get rid of Saddam Hussein and the previous regime," Habboush says, but adds that you don't see much American investment in Iraq.
"Do you see what you see in the rest of the Gulf in Iraq? Do you see American investment? Do you see private equity funds there? No. Do you see any big flow of foreign direct investment from New York into Southern Iraq? No. I don't see that."
Habboush says Southern Iraq holds the largest basket of resources; he calls it the last mega-frontier in terms of oil and gas. And he says it's not just natural resources that make the country rich -- it's also the people.
"We need manufacturing, industry. We in Iraq import so much. We are an import country. We don't manufacture anything."
All good, I say, but the security situation in Iraq scares a lot of people away. Habboush claims the South is stable. And what about corruption?
Habboush says, "Corruption is prevalent in developing countries in general. If there is corruption in Iraq, it's no different than in other developing countries. I think these things can be addressed by businesses that really want to invest in the country."
He says Basra, on the Gulf, needs a new port, needs infrastructure for expanding its oil and gas sector. Iran is in there, he says, as are Turkey and China, which adds to the landscape.
"If there is a way Basra could be a bridge of peace, why not. As a Basrawi, I would like to see Basra as a bridge of opportunity."
Habboush says, "Perception is what's killing investment in Iraq, not the reality. Is it easy to do business in Iraq? It is not easy doing business in Iraq. It's an unsophisticated area of the world. It's a new Iraq. "
He insists there is no anti-Americanism in Basra. Habboush says Iraqis have had enough of fighting. They just want to reap now the benefits of their land, which he calls a beautiful place.
"It's Mesopotamia. It's the land of the two rivers. There are palm trees and plantations. Great people. Southern hospitality. Very colorful people. Hardworking."