Iraq eyes joining China's Belt and Road initiative

Iraq eyes joining China's Belt and Road initiative
Chinese investment in Iraq continues to develop at pace. / bne IntelliNews
By bne Gulf bureau June 10, 2024

Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani confirmed on June 9 the possibility of linking China's Belt and Road Initiative with Iraq's strategic Development Road project during a meeting with Dai Houliang, chairman of China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC).

According to a statement from the Prime Minister's Office (PMO), the meeting focused on Iraq's interest in developing gas projects, fertiliser industries, energy projects, and the construction of a power plant and petrochemical factory.

The Belt and Road Initiative, also known as the New Silk Road, is a global infrastructure development project launched by the Chinese government in 2013, with investments in over 150 countries. 

The World Bank estimates that the initiative has the potential to increase trade flows in 155 participating countries by 4.1%, while reducing global trade costs by 1.1 to 2.2% and boosting the GDP of East Asian and Pacific developing countries by an average of 2.6 to 3.9%.

The Chinese initiative aims to create an integrated large market that fully utilises both international and domestic markets through cultural exchange and integration to enhance mutual understanding and trust among member countries.

Iraq's $17bn “Development Road” project involves connecting the Al-Faw Grand Port in southern Iraq to the Turkish border by extending a railway and road network. 

Once completed the Development Road project would then connect with the Gulf Cooperation Council’s new railway network which would connect all countries along the Persian Gulf from Kuwait.  Several Arab, regional, and European countries have expressed interest in participating in the project through investments or by taking part in construction works, as it serves as a crucial link between Asia and Europe.

Earlier in 2024, Beijing, in a significant move to expand its influence in the Middle East following the United States' withdrawal, signed a deal with Iraq to build 1,000 schools. Construction of hundreds have started across the country in a move seen by the West with suspicion. The school building development is part of Beijing's larger push for a more significant regional role across Iraq and other countries in the region. 

The project is expected to transform Iraq into a transit hub by reducing travel time between Asia and Europe, potentially competing with Egypt's Suez Canal. 

Prime Minister Al-Sudani previously stated that the project includes a railway with a capacity of 3.5mn tonnes in its first phase, which will be increased to 7.5mn tonnes in the second phase.

In addition to the railway, the project will feature a highway for land transport, pipelines for energy transportation, the Al-Faw Grand Port, and an industrial city that is expected to be one of the largest in the Middle East. 

The UAE’s AD Ports Group and the General Company for Ports of Iraq have signed a preliminary agreement to establish a joint venture for the development of Grand Faw Port and its Economic Zone, as reported by WAM on April 4.

The joint venture will develop the port and its Economic Zone in Basra as part of a project to create a corridor for Asian-European trade bypassing the Suez Canal.

Initially touted by Turkey as part of its southern reach, the Grand Faw project is referred to as the “Iraq Development Road initiative” in that country and aims to build on Turkish economic development in the region.

On September 17, Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan insisted to the FT that “intensive negotiations” were under way with Iraq, Qatar and the UAE on this project, which would be forged “within the next few months”.

The Iraq Development Road plan would rely on 1,200 km (746 miles) of high-speed rail and a parallel road network.