How Iraq’s ‘Development Road’ project can deliver stability

How Iraq’s ‘Development Road’ project can deliver stability

Erdogan, during his first visit to Iraq in 13 years, signed a memorandum of understanding with Iraq, Qatar, and the UAE. (AFP)
Erdogan, during his first visit to Iraq in 13 years, signed a memorandum of understanding with Iraq, Qatar, and the UAE. (AFP)
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About two months ago, amid rising regional tensions resulting from tit-for-tat military exchanges between Israel and Iran, Iraq presented a new vision for logistical connectivity in the Middle East.
On April 22, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, during his first visit to Iraq in 13 years, signed a memorandum of understanding with Iraq, Qatar, and the UAE for construction of the “Development Road” project, a multimodal transport corridor that would connect the Arabian Gulf with Turkiye through road and rail links across Iraq.
The project will cover a distance of 1,275 km and is expected to cost about $20 billion. Starting from the Iraqi port of Al-Fao, at the mouth of the Shatt Al-Arab, it will consist of roads to carry goods and passengers, and freight railway lines that connect with Turkish road and rail networks at the border town of Faysh Khabur. Factories and workshops will also be built along the new road and rail routes.
The first phase of port development is expected to be completed by early next year. Within three years, the railway system is expected to carry 3.5 million cargo containers and 22 million tonnes of bulk cargo, with exponential increases in subsequent years. The project aims to reduce the delivery time from Shanghai to Rotterdam from 33 to 15 days.
It represents a major effort by Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani to instill fresh vigor into his conflict-ridden country through a project with considerable economic and strategic value. The country obtains 90 percent of its revenues from oil sales, which means national finances are totally dependent on the vagaries of global oil prices, the quantities of oil it is permitted to sell under OPEC-mandated quotas, and the safe functioning of the pipeline to transport it to Turkiye.
The issue of pipeline safety is linked to the federal government’s relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government, which frequently asserts full control over oil exports from its territory and denies the central government the revenues from such sales.
The Development Road initiative will therefore help to diversify national sources of revenue, enabling the Iraqi government to invest in infrastructure, reconstruction, and manufacturing, and thus providing the jobs the people of the country so desperately need.
There are several positive aspects to the project. It enjoys the support of Qatar and the UAE, who bring substantial expertise and financing to the enterprise. Emirati company ADPort has already signed an agreement with its Iraqi counterpart to operate Al-Fao port and develop an economic zone alongside it.

Turkiye also backs the project, as it complements Ankara’s own interest in positioning itself as a regional economic hub, and would help to link the country not only with Europe to the west but also China to the east, through Central Asia.

It represents a major effort by Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani to instill fresh vigor into his conflict-ridden country. 

Talmiz Ahmad

To help deepen ties with Iraq, Erdogan signed, during his visit in April, a “Strategic Framework Agreement on Joint Cooperation” with the country, and memorandums of understanding on trade, energy, and water-sharing.
The last of these has been a particularly contentious issue between the two neighboring countries: Turkiye’s dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers have greatly reduced the amount of water available to Iraq, even creating drought conditions on occasion. The latest agreements should ensure closer cooperation on the use of irrigation technology for the efficient use of this scarce resource.
The project still needs to successfully confront some important challenges. Iraq is emerging from four decades of domestic and regional conflicts and so, not surprisingly, its technical, financial, and political institutions are still in a fragile state. The government will need to forcefully address the problems of inadequate governance capabilities and endemic corruption if it is to see the project through.
A major hurdle Iraq faces in this regard is the presence of near-autonomous militias, many of them part of the Popular Mobilization Units, that frequently resort to use of force against domestic and regional foes, without fear of government sanctions.
In recent months, against the backdrop of the war in Gaza, PMU militants have launched nearly 200 attacks on US targets in Iraq and Syria, inviting strong retaliatory fire. Such activities create an environment of insecurity and instability that could undermine the implementation of the nation’s ambitious infrastructure project.
Another scourge that has reemerged in Iraq is Daesh. Though the organization had been defeated through military action by December 2017, its surviving fighters went underground. These militants have been carrying out sporadic hit-and-run attacks in remote areas, including a bombing in Kirkuk in December 2022 that killed nine police officers. In May, Daesh militants attacked an army site in eastern Iraq and killed several soldiers, including the commanding officer, a colonel. US military sources estimate there could be about 1,000 Daesh fighters in Iraq, and 1,500 in Syria.
Aside from these domestic sources of insecurity, Iraq also has to bear the brunt of Turkiye’s periodic air attacks against militants belonging to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, also known as the PKK, who have sought sanctuary in northern Iraq. In October last year, a PKK-linked suicide attack in Ankara, the first since 2016, resulted in Turkish air strikes on PKK targets in Iraq. Further attacks by the group on targets in Turkiye have meant Turkish retaliation in northern Iraq has been a regular feature since then.
Several lethal sources of conflict are therefore still present in Iraq. These will need to be effectively tackled if the Development Road project is to succeed in its aim of radically transforming the nation’s economic and political situations and improving the lives of its beleaguered people.

  • Talmiz Ahmad is a former Indian diplomat.
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