BASRA: For decades Iraq’s ancient cultural attractions were closed to international tourists because of the ongoing conflict in the country, including a strict sanctions regime, but this has seemingly all changed with the 25th Arabian Gulf Cup.
Having spent time over the years in Iraq reporting on the conflict, I had never seen cars with number plates from any neighboring countries. Now seeing plates from Oman, Kuwait, the UAE and others was heart-warming, heightened by the fact that it takes many hours to drive to the country.
Full of cultural and historic artifacts and attractions, from the Ziggurat of Ur to the remains of Babylon, Iraq had always been a hotspot for tourism. Sadly, however, access dwindled from the late 1980s onwards.
One barrier has always been the difficulty to gain visas, unless they were for religious tourism. In 2019, the rules were relaxed for Western passport holders, and a visa-on-arrival scheme allowed for a plethora of foreign bloggers to explore Iraq. Residents and citizens from Arab countries still had problems, until the current Arabian Gulf Cup, with many jumping at the opportunity to visit.
“It was important for me to be here and support Iraq because of the years of crisis it’s been through,” explained Lorns Amean, a popular Jordanian travel vlogger. “I have travelled all over the world, and I have never seen hospitality greater than what the Iraqis have given us.”
Throughout the World Cup in Qatar, I would often bump into Saudi Arabian fans and tourists. When they discovered I was Iraqi, I would see their faces light up. On multiple occasions they would tell me, quite excitedly, about their plans to visit for the Gulf tournament or would ask about the security situation. And if it would be safe to travel given that the media portrayals have created an image of the country being synonymous with war.
The security situation has been a major concern for some. One Iraqi resident of Qatar, who preferred to remain anonymous, described to me how her parents feared letting her visit Basra for the tournament for precisely this reason.
Understanding the concerns of some Middle Eastern countries, Mustafa, a 30-year-old Iraqi, at a gathering of Kuwaiti and Iraq fans in Basra, explained: “We are actually victims of the media. This is our reality, we go to restaurants, to malls, we wish more would see this.”
The security in Iraq has improved considerably from the days of sectarian violence and ISIS terrorism, and hosting the Arabian Gulf Cup is a step in the right direction for the nation to reclaim its narrative in the media.
“We knew Iraq was the opposite to what the media had been showing us and it’s really proved that during our time here,” said Ahmed Al-Hamadi, a 23-year-old Emirati student who came from Sharjah to support the UAE. “We’ve been going out every day since we arrived, going to restaurants, the corniche and have loved every single moment and had no issues.”
In fact, for many fans, Iraq’s current climate has shattered preconceived notions.
“We’ve been welcomed at every moment of our journey here,” said Souad Mohammed, a 26-year-old Emirati accounting graduate. “From the airport, to accessing the hotel to entering the stadium, it was all made easy for us.”
The Arabian Gulf Cup represents Iraq’s re-emergence onto the international scene as tourists from across the Gulf have enjoyed the nation’s stability. Let’s hope the tournament acts as a catalyst for tourists to continue visiting the nation that has, as Bassam Mahdi sings in one of the cup’s official songs, “sorely missed its brothers.”