Ramadi, Iraq – It is one of Iraq’s smallest provincial capitals, but Ramadi could soon boast the largest shopping mall in the country.
The development, which will span 125,000 square metres (1.4 million square feet) once complete, is one of dozens of investment projects that have transformed this part of Anbar province since the ISIL (ISIS) armed group was defeated here in 2016.
“These projects are needed in this province, and according to our feasibility study, they will be successful,” said Maher al-Fahdawi, an engineer at Al Qasas, the investment company building the mall. “We believe Anbar has a good future.”
Unlike remote areas close to Anbar’s border with Syria, which were not freed from ISIL until late 2017, few overt signs remain of the destruction the war wreaked on Ramadi and nearby Fallujah.
Traffic in the city centre glides along recently paved roads. Residential compounds are mushrooming on the outskirts. Anbar’s first five-star hotel, complete with luxury villas featuring private pools, is rising on the shores of the Euphrates.
Construction projects have created jobs at a time when Iraq suffers from a severe economic downturn and soaring poverty rates.
Most are funded by private investors, drawn by relative stability and encouraged by an ambitious local government that wants to manage its own affairs.
“There are more investments opportunities than in other provinces,” said Mahdi Saleh al-Nouman, director of Anbar’s Investment Commission, itself housed in a brand new building. “If we get more authority, it will help us make great leaps in next few years.”
Nouman said the absence of armed groups, known to extort business owners in other parts of Iraq, as well as relative social cohesion among Anbar’s population has created a business-friendly environment.
“Anbar’s society believes in the authority of the civilian government. No one is allowed to carry weapons except for the government security forces,” he told Al Jazeera.
Anbar’s investment portfolio is worth about $2bn and focused primarily on non-oil sectors such as housing and commerce. The local government wants to triple that figure in the coming years by attracting foreign investors, especially from the Gulf, to develop the province’s untapped gas and mineral resources.
“We received many proposals from Gulf Nations for the energy sector,” said Ali Farhan, the governor of Anbar, who just returned from a trip to Dubai where he met prospective investors.
“But because of our limited authority and the complicated procedures of the central government, things have been delayed.”
Demands for greater autonomy
The push for more investment underpins the province’s ambitions for greater autonomy from the government in the capital Baghdad.
Under current laws, the local government can award investment licenses for projects up to $250m. Anything above that amount – as well as projects considered to be of strategic importance for the country, such as energy and electricity – must be approved by the central government.
That involves navigating an infamously cumbersome and corrupt bureaucracy, which has placed Iraq 172 out of 190 on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business rankings.
Anbar officials say much of the red tape could be eliminated if the province was allowed to deal with investors directly. But analysts say devolving powers to local entities could compound mismanagement and corruption, especially if mechanisms to ensure accountability remain weak at the local level.
“Iraq’s recent experience has shown that if decentralisation isn’t accompanied by real reforms to enhance transparency and accountability, we just end up reinforcing corruption and red tape at the local level without actually improving the business environment,” said Ali Mawlawi, a policy analyst who co-authored a recent study on decentralisation in Iraq.
Businessmen echo sentiments that provincial authorities are afflicted by the same ills as their counterparts in Baghdad.
“The [local government] says they have a one-stop-shop for investors, but in the end, you have to go to many places. And everyone wants a bribe,” one Iraqi investor, who did not want to be named for fear it may impact his project, told Al Jazeera.
The value of his investment falls below the $250m threshold and within the authority of the Anbar’s local government, but he said it still took two years and numerous visits to a dizzying number of government institutions in both Ramadi and Baghdad to complete the paperwork.
The investor has already broken ground and spent millions of dollars, but said he has yet to receive the concession deed for the land from the central government.
“It’s a big risk to operate here,” he said. “No foreign investor will come here if the government can’t offer more safeguards.”
‘Dividing Iraq – not in our interest’
Privately, some politicians even support the idea of Anbar becoming semi-autonomous, like the Kurdish areas in Iraq’s north. They say greater involvement of Gulf nations in Iraq’s economy could bolster such aspirations, while also providing a counterbalance to Iran’s vast influence in the country.
But Anbar’s residents appear divided on the matter. Many share a desire for greater decentralisation to boost service delivery, a demand that is partly driven by perceptions of low budget allocations for their province compared with others.
“The central government has not taken care of this province. Anbar and other Sunni provinces have suffered a lot, but the budget didn’t take into account important demands of the citizens,” said Abdul Qadir Tawfeeq, a resident of Ramadi.
But some fear Anbar’s ruling elites would be the first to reap the benefits from a devolution of powers.
“Dividing Iraq is not in our interest,” said Zahra Zagier, who resides in remote areas of Anbar near the border with Syria, and who travelled to Ramadi to seek medical treatment for her daughter.
Apart from a few projects funded by aid organisations, Zagier’s area has seen little development, a sign of systemic neglect of Iraq’s periphery that she said will not be resolved by a greater degree of provincial autonomy.
“The one who pays a bribe or has connections gets jobs,” she said. “These problems will not be solved even if we become a region. Everyone takes care of their followers.”