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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

Iraq's Basra gets business boost from football

Fifa lifted its prohibition on Iraq hosting competitive internationals and souther city is hoping football could help turn it into a winner

Iraqi fans cheer on their team during the international friendly football match between Iraq and Saudi Arabia at the Basra Sports city stadium. Local businesses are feeling the benefit after Fifa lifted a ban on the country hosting internationals. Haidar Mohammed Ali / AFP
Iraqi fans cheer on their team during the international friendly football match between Iraq and Saudi Arabia at the Basra Sports city stadium. Local businesses are feeling the benefit after Fifa lifted a ban on the country hosting internationals. Haidar Mohammed Ali / AFP

Boasting an ultra-modern stadium, the southern Iraqi city of Basra is hoping to cash in on football fans starved of international matches after the lifting of a three-decade ban.

Earlier this month world governing body Fifa finally lifted its prohibition on Iraq hosting competitive internationals - sparking jubilation in the violence-wracked nation.

The news was especially welcome for businesses in Basra, one of three locations now allowed to stage the matches along with holy city Karbala and Kurdish capital Arbil.

The southern city lies at the heart of a key oil-producing region but it is now looking to kick start its tourism sector - and hoping football could help turn it into a winner.

The signs are already promising.

Late last month Basra saw fans pack out its 65,000-seater stadium for a friendly against Saudi Arabia, and now the city is hosting a mini-tournament with neighbouring nations.

Hotel manager Tony Dib says every match day brings a flood of bookings - with packed establishments in the city even forced to refuse clients.

"Business increases dramatically," sys Mr Dib, who runs the Basra Sheraton.

"Investors need to start thinking about building new hotels as the current capacity is not enough."

Up until recently the vast bulk of people checking into Basra's hotels have been businessmen, mostly from the oil industry.

But with other Middle East national teams now in town they are having to make way for another clientele - football-mad fans from at home and abroad.

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"It was necessary to relocate customers who came for business to make space for those who came for the matches," says vice president of the Basra chamber of commerce Qassem Al Saadi.

Governor Assaad Al Aydani says the matches are having a "positive impact on the economy" of the city, over 500 kilometres south of Baghdad on the borders with Iran and Kuwait.

He is hoping the uptick in economic activity will push local and national authorities to start "supporting more investment projects".

Already businesses have been rejigging their offerings to cater for the increased demand.

Iraq's national carrier has put on two additional flights during the week that the tournament is being held and the railway bolstered capacity for the estimated 7,000 supporters who came from Baghdad.

"Ahead of each match the national railway puts on three extra trains for 1,500 people from Baghdad to Basra," says regional rail boss Hadi Shallal.

Tickets cost about $6.

Officials are hoping that the recent matches are just the starting whistle.

Now Iraq has returned to the full international fold they are pitching for Basra to host the regional 2024 Arabian Gulf Cup.

But for that to happen local businessmen say there will need to be a lot of money ploughed into the city.

"We are struggling to cope with holding just a small tournament," says Mr Al Saadi.

"How could we deal with something on the scale of the Arabian Gulf Cup?"