Last September, B. Tucker Gilman, president of Gilman Consulting Group LLC, traveled to Baghdad to scout out business development and investment opportunities. Here, he recounts his 10-day-long trip.
To reach Iraq, our group left Amman, Jordan, at 3 a.m. It was a 10-hour trip to Baghdad. We drove all night across the desert in a convoy of Chevy Suburbans, racing about 100 miles per hour to evade the desert bandits called Ali Babas.
It didn’t hit me that we were in Iraq until a U.S. Army helicopter appeared beside us, just 50 feet off the desert floor. I could see a soldier peering at us through binoculars. I could also see that the helicopter’s missile pods were loaded. A colleague pulled out his video camera and opened a window before I stopped him: “He might think you’re getting ready to fire.” He put the camera away. A minute later, the helicopter pulled a high-speed turn and sped off.
I was heading a group of consultants hoping to sniff out business opportunities for Western companies and potential Iraqi partners. We were looking for projects related to the reconstruction, such things as mobile generator equipment and telecommunications. But it runs the gamut. I’ve secured bids for everything from musical instruments to AK-47s and 2 million rounds of ammo.
I’ve been consulting in Jordan for four years, so I know the region. But Iraq is a world apart. If the Arab world is a family, Iraq is the ugly, unloved child who craves attention. Fear of Saddam and his secret police has been supplanted among many by the fear of losing out as reconstruction creates opportunities for business and wealth.
Entering Baghdad five months after the official end of combat operations, I was struck by the capital’s surrealism. Sidewalks were crowded, traffic was chaotic, and businesses were open. But then a U.S. patrol drove down the street, trying to navigate the traffic without stopping. Five Humvees rolled along with troopers in rooftop turrets manning .50-caliber machine guns. The soldiers’ fingers rested on the triggers, their faces tense and deadly serious.
The presidential palace, where we had meetings lined up, was as surreal as the city itself. The opulence of the impossibly long, marbled corridors, high-ceilinged offices, and ornate furniture (now covered in clear plastic)–it all smacked of monumental ego and incredibly bad taste. Coalition Provisional Authority staffers and U.S. military personnel hustled along the halls, working to reconstruct a nation amid the remains of Saddam’s kleptocracy.
Our meetings went well. No signatures on dotted lines, but those would come later. (For one client, I think, it will be much later; the vibe there was not at all good.) What mattered for now were personal introductions, face time with key American, British, and Iraqi decision makers, and a better sense for what was happening on the ground.
Satisfied with what we’d seen, we headed 120 miles south to visit friends in a small town in the Al Qadisiyah governorate. These were guys who had staked everything on the aborted uprising of 1991. They’re some of the hungriest Iraqis when it comes to business. You name it, they want to do it. Plus, they could connect us with Iraqis in larger cities with the means to get it done.
The next few days offered images that will stay with me for life. There were the men eagerly getting their first look at a detailed map of Iraq. Such maps had never been available under Saddam, so these guys were literally overjoyed when I said they could keep it. Later, a group sat enthralled by the miracle of the microchip via my colleague’s Apple PowerBook G4–definitely the first of its kind ever seen in this region of Iraq. (Steve Jobs, take note.)
Then there was the warmth and generosity of the many poor but proud Iraqis. Most don’t have work, but they do have great hope and belief in the American effort. As for the weapons of mass destruction, one Iraqi friend put it this way: “Weapons of mass destruction? We don’t care about them! Saddam was our weapon of mass destruction. With him, we were dead. Now we live!”