It is Iraq’s turn to host the summit, which was postponed last year because of the revolts elsewhere. The choice of venue nonetheless raised eyebrows. The daily tally of bombings and shootings made many skeptical that Baghdad was a sufficiently safe venue in which to host Arab heads of state. The country’s badly frayed infrastructure raised doubts that it would be able to provide them with suitably lavish accommodations. And until a few months ago, Iraq’s relations with its Arab neighbors were so dire that it was assumed many wouldn’t show up at all.
But Maliki’s government has spared no effort to ensure that the summit goes ahead. To deter suicide bombers, huge swaths of Baghdad have been sealed off to traffic. The airport has closed, and the government has declared a week-long public holiday.
More than $500 million has been spent to clean up the city, renovate hotel rooms and lavishly restore the cavernous Republican Palace, built by Saddam Hussein and occupied by the U.S. Embassy for several years, where the actual summit will take place.
It would be hard to disguise the dreary decrepitude of all of Baghdad’s crumbling, war-battered streets on such a budget, but roads along the routes that guests will traverse have been planted with blazing marigolds and decorated with the brightly colored flags of the nations attending.
Not all Iraqis are happy with the upheaval their city is enduring. With most major roads closed off, journeys across the city take hours. The week-long shutdown has impinged upon livelihoods and sent prices for local produce soaring.
Many question the high price tag of the largely cosmetic alterations and complain that the money would have been better spent on restoring electricity, which still functions only a few hours a day.
Yet there’s also a sense of pride. “The summit in Baghdad is something good,” said Yaroob Tawfiq Khadem, a 48-year-old teacher. “Through it, our country will be restored to its normal Arab environment, and this should make everyone happy.”