Still, the countries that pledged funds this week for Iraq illustrate what could be the start of a regional willingness to stabilize the country. Turkey, which has been involved in Iraq’s reconstruction since the end of the war that ousted Saddam Hussein, was the biggest contributor. It pledged $5 billion. The Saudis, who may be wary of the composition of the next Iraqi government (elections are in May and Riyadh doesn’t want pro-Iranian interests to gain power), promised $1.5 billion. Kuwait, which organized the conference, pledged $1 billion; Qatar an additional $1 billion. There were smaller contributions from the United Arab Emirates, Germany, the EU, and the Islamic Development Bank. The United States did not pledge any money, but said it would offer more than $3 billion in financing to help U.S. companies invest in Iraq.
Much of the money will flow into Iraq only if contracts or agreements actually materialize. Still Sajjad Jiyad, who runs the Bayan Center, an Iraqi think tank in Baghdad, pointed out that 76 governments showed up at the conference, along with 1,800 firms, NGOs, and international corporations. “They may not have bid today,” he said, “but … they can go back and apply for credit lines and guarantees and bid on specific projects.”
Michael Knights, an Iraq expert at the Washington Institute, told me that while the top-line numbers might have looked disappointing, there was much to be optimistic about.
“What a lot of people have been impressed with is that the Iraqis have come out in a very mature way and tried to put in a decent amount of effort trying to attract private sector investment to the country, trying to reassure investors, putting on a good show,” he said. “And, I think, this should be viewed more as an investment conference than as an aid conference. That’s the key takeaway there.”
Still, Iraq is only just recovering from the war with ISIS. The cities the terrorists occupied were destroyed—and fixing them is expected to cost $22 billion. Corruption remains a problem, as well. Transparency International ranked Iraq 166 out of 176 countries in 2016, the most recent year for which data are available.
Samya Kullab, a senior correspondent with Iraq Oil Report, a news organization that covers the country’s energy sector, told me that Iraqi officials were aware of the perception among the donor community that the country was corrupt. One way to mitigate that perception was with the establishment of the Iraq Reconstruction Fund, which is run by Mustafa al-Hiti, a highly respected official, who began to work with the World Bank. But, Kullab acknowledged, that won’t entirely solve the problem.
“The fact remains that it will take a lot of work and a long time for the structures to hold up,” she said. “These individuals and the system itself allowed corruption to flourish. It will take a long time for that to be remedied.”