The head of the Iraq Stock Exchange may be one of the few market chiefs who have to deal with bulls and bears as well as bombings and lootings. He has seen the bourse grow from a 'hand on a board' to a fully automated exchange. Hadeel Al Sayegh reports from Baghdad:
Taha Abdulsalam is not your ordinary stock market chief. He carries two revolvers at all times, his investors take their lives into their hands every time they enter the exchange, and, to cap it all, he earns very little for a man whose business is money.
The chief executive of the Iraq Stock Exchange occupies an office on the second floor of a building in the Karrada district of Baghdad. There have been so many bombings recently in this part of town that the exchange is protected by a huge concrete perimeter wall, barbed-wire and security guards armed with AK-47 assault rifles.
"How many bourses or chief executives do you know that have to deal with bombings, terrorist attacks, ensuring his security forces have enough food ahead of an unexpected curfew across the city?" he says.
On one of the walls in his office, a giant television screen broadcasts nine live closed-circuit feeds of the exchange, from the corridors to the entrances and the trading floor itself. On his desk sits a satellite phone and a two-way radio that gives him an immediate connection to the guards downstairs. His suit jacket, with its side pockets weighed down by his guns, hangs on a hat stand. The window has a view of a church that is still being rebuilt after a fatal bombing in 2010.
During the interview, he constantly stops himself in mid-sentence when discussing security, careful not to divulge anything that might make him more vulnerable to attack.
Mr Abdulsalam comes from a family of car dealers but he has not driven in almost a decade because of the multiple checkpoints and the traffic jams they cause across town.
"I am the only one in my family who knows how to drive a car but not how to fix it," he says. Instead of getting his hands dirty with grease, his pastimes as a boy were listening to classical music, reading and, he adds, "to spritz cologne and wear nice shirts".
"They used to call me a dreamer."
He enrolled for an economics degree in 1986, after which he served three years in the army before taking a master's degree in 1989. His dissertation in 1990 was a paper outlining the case for the creation of a stock exchange in Iraq, something that actually occurred two years later.
When the government decided to set up the Baghdad Stock Exchange in 1992, he was hired as research manager.
"It was a government market: no website, no foreign investors, no cell phones, no channels of communication. Trading was done purely by hand on a board. No regulator," he says.
Unfortunately, the exchange was launched during a period of economic turmoil, amid sanctions imposed on Saddam Hussein's government for the invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
"The Iraqi currency started devaluing at a rapid rate," Mr Abdulsalam recalls. "The share prices of companies were rocketing not because they were profitable and in demand, but because inflationary pressures made the dinar worthless."
As the climate worsened, Mr Abdulsalam took to moonlighting as a lecturer at the University of Baghdad to make ends meet.
By the end of 1994, his monthly salary of 2,000 dinars (Dh6.30) was equivalent to US$1.50.
He attempted to resign seven times during this period but was not allowed to leave. Under Saddam's rules, civil servants who left their work would have their water and electricity cut off and food subsidy card cancelled. Like everyone else with a master's degree, he was also banned from foreign travel.
His monthly salary increased to about $25 after Iraq signed the oil-for-food agreement with the United Nations in 1995.
The day after US forces invaded Iraq in March 2003, trading was suspended.
"I saw my building being looted and burnt. Even the tiles were removed from the floor," Mr Abdulsalam says. "It was devastating to watch because, at the time, we were thinking we were going to move forward with automated trading."
Despite the closure, Mr Abdulsalam was still paid at the end of every month. After Saddam was toppled, the dinar began to rise, and the value of his wage jumped to $300 a month.
The occupying US administration dissolved the Baghdad Stock Exchange in April 2004, but soon afterwards, the administration approached him to set up a new operation.
Mr Abdulsalam was told to go to the Investment Bank of Iraq, where two meeting rooms had been hired, and then to Al Mansour Hotel, to hold meetings with shareholders about the trading hiatus and reassure them that their shares had not vanished.
"If anyone wanted to ask about their shares on the Baghdad Stock Exchange, they would find someone to pose their questions to and be reassured that the employees are still there," he says. "'Have my shares disappeared?' they used to ask. My response was: 'No, your shares are still here, even if your documents were stolen or burnt. We have them backed up and saved on CDs'."
On April 18, the Americans established the Iraq Stock Exchange (ISX) as a private institution, not a government body, whose general assembly would consist of brokers. Mr Abdulsalam was invited the following month to represent the 60 employees who worked for the Saddam-era bourse.
"They invited me to be the chief executive of the newly established stock exchange and asked me how long I needed until the bourse could be fully operational. I told them I needed at least 30 days," he says.
Mr Abdulsalam called a meeting for the 60 staff members and asked them to come to work every day. He met with a lot of opposition.
"They said they did not want to work because they had been receiving their salary at the end of the month for the past 15 months without doing anything," he says.
"I invited the public companies to relist, but had to make my due diligence and retrieve new information. I didn't know if they got burned down, if someone stole their products, if their assets were still intact. Out of more than 80 public companies, I initially selected 15 companies which appeared that nothing happened with them. They were private banks. That number gradually rose to 86 listed companies."
Trading resumed after the ISX moved into a new building in the Karrada district, initially with three sessions a week. By 2006, Mr Abdulsalam signed an agreement with Nasdaq OMX to move towards automated trading.
"Taha came across as a chief executive who was desperately trying to make his markets work," says Shafi Wahid, the GCC head of dealing room and brokerage network at Mubasher Financial Services, which signed an agreement to offer live prices for the exchange last year.
Mr Abdulsalam recalls the fateful day on October 31, 2010, when men from The Islamic State of Iraq, a group linked to Al Qaeda, detonated a car bomb in front of the Catholic church next to the exchange. More than 100 people were held hostage inside the church and 58 people were shot and killed.
"That day was just like any ordinary work day," Mr Abdulsalam says.
"After having completed lunch at about 5.10pm, I received a call saying one of our security forces had been shot and a car bomb exploded in front of the exchange," Mr Abdulsalam says. "I immediately thought there was an attack specifically on the bourse."
He was inundated with calls from media and investors asking whether the stock market was the target.
Mr Abdulsalam reached the exchange at 5.30pm. "Thank God, I saw the building was fine, just the glass broken."
By 9pm, Iraqi Special Forces, backed by American air support, had rescued the hostages.
"That evening I called all the brokers and told them: tomorrow is a session, call your clients, your traders, your investors. Some asked if I was crazy," he says. "But it was important to prove that nothing happened to the stock market despite the attacks.
"As a citizen, what do you do? My job is to work. That's the best response to terrorism."