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Babylon Awaits Investment

Saad Salloum
Following the 1970s upsurge in oil production, huge sums of money were spent across the ancient province of Babylon. However, the money was not spent on tourism projects or on projects stimulating employment but…
1.09.2008  |  Baghdad

But, while the plan called for the reconstruction of the ancient ruins, the project caused the archeological city much damage. Saddam embossed the bricks with his own inscription just as Babylonian lords had done and new buildings disfigured the site’s features.

Babylon’s annual cultural festival, “From Nebuchadnezzar to Saddam Hussein, Babylon is rising again”, became indicative of the city’s new form and of the regime’s need to establish historic roots as it lost popular support.

Until the end of last year, there was no special interest in the rehabilitation of Babylon and the establishment of new investment projects in the city. The deteriorating security conditions did not encourage investors especially as ancient Babylon areas remained under the control of multinational forces.

Instead, the archaeological city witnessed increased destruction following the US occupation of Iraq. American troops, later replaced by Polish forces, built sand barricades on Babylon’s northern, southern and eastern entrances, as well as inside the city. These sandbags contained precious stonework and pieces of pottery dating back to Nebuchadnezzar’s era and briquette engraved with cuneiform writing.

This outraged Iraqi archaeologists who were keen to keep the area closed until UNESCO evaluated the damage inflicted on the city. According to archaeologist Abdul-Amir al-Hamadani, “military forces razed and sunk some hilly areas and archaeological sites, and extended paved roads north and east of the city and near to Babylon Ninmakh Temple, al-Mawkeb Street and Ishtar Gate, all of which are valuable archaeological sites. Additionally, an eight to ten kilometer street was paved near Babylon House and Hamourabi museum causing damage to a number of archeological sites.”

However, following the improvement in security conditions since the beginning of the year, investment projects are now beginning to trickle in, revitalizing hopes of growth in the economic and services sectors. Salim al-Misilmani, Babel’s Provincial Governor told Niqash that Austrian, Australian and Jordanian tourism companies want to turn Saddam Hussein's presidential palace near the site of ancient Babylon into a tourist resort. The palace is located south of the Babylon archaeological city, directly overlooking it and is built on a monstrous hill-top fortress to look like Babylon’s ancient hanging gardens.

Local and religious circles in Babylon have expressed outrage at the prospect of turning the palace into a tourist resort, with one rumor suggesting that a number of casinos will be established by Russian and American companies. Babel’s governor denies these rumors saying that the investment purpose will only relate to cultural tourism.

But, surprisingly, the biggest expected investment in Babylon has not been directed towards the tourism sector. To date, over 1,300 investment projects have been launched in the city and many of them focus on the agricultural and industrial sectors. One company, al-Issa Trading and Contracting Company (a Saudi Company owned by Prince Saoud bin Abdullah Al Saud), has already invested close to one billion dollars in Iraq, and one of its biggest projects is the construction of a $350 million commercial air freight airport which will become the region’s biggest. The company has also signed an agreement for agricultural investment across 30,000 square kilometers in a project that will use modern techniques to produce strategic crops and provide Iraq with a surplus food basket for export purposes.

The Investment Council of Babylon is seeking to attract more investors by “launching promotional steps such as tax exemptions for the first ten years, and exemption from customs duties on equipment brought by the project.” According to Ala’ al-Harba, president of the Babylon Investment Commission, the local government wants to “offer facilities to investors and an adequate security climate to initiate the investment process, protect sites and provide raw materials from the local market at affordable prices.”

People from the city - one of Iraq’s poorest (unemployment reached 66% in 2004) - hope that the local government will help revive the area and secure jobs for its people after years of neglect. Large areas of reclaimable agricultural land remain uncultivated and no big industrial projects have been implemented despite the many positive features offered by the city.