The big money at stake for Iraq’s Khan al-Khalili Museum

Written by By Maureen O’Hare, CNN

In May this year, Saudi architect Nawaf Al-Bassam announced his intention to restore the Khan al-Khalili, a palatial residence of Al-Thaqafi and Kahn al-Thaqafi, rulers of Baghdad from the middle of the 14th century.

No more names are required for the new place of honor: the Kahn al-Khalili Museum.

The first large-scale project to be fully endorsed by the Saudi royal family in recent years, the Kahn al-Khalili Museum is an initiative by the Chairman of the Royal Commission for Madinah and Medina.

A key part of its development is the reconstruction of what’s become, in recent years, a popular tourist destination for Gulf visitors. Opened in 2004, the Khan al-Khalili was also a popular stop-off point on pilgrimages to Mecca.

The planned museum should showcase a remarkable fraction of the treasures left behind in Baghdad after the Ottoman Empire was dissolved in the late 19th century. The museum-in-progress will also be the first in Iraq to be fully owned by an Iraqi majority and designed to comply with international sustainable development standards.

Unfortunately, the inaugural Kahn al-Khalili Museum was postponed following the tragic terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015. Over the past 18 months, however, the work is progressing at an accelerated pace.

Saudi tourism minister Mohammed al-Tuwaijri toured the site on behalf of the Saudi government in February 2016, where he was shown around by Mamdouh Saad, who heads up the project at the Saudi Arabian Cultural Heritage Company.

Funded by the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center, as well as private donation and member contributions, the Khan al-Khalili Museum is a project that could revitalize the tourism economy in Iraq, particularly in Baghdad.

The museum will soon open its doors, attracting tourists and Iraqi and Arab visitors.

Speaking with CNN about the project, Arid Mohammad, a former information minister of Iraq in the 1990s, described the relative impact of tourism in the country during his time in office.

“From the 1940s and ’50s, travel was almost a means to boost the economy in Iraq,” said Mohammad. “It was a revenue generator that provided more jobs in the economy and benefited the local people.”

However, the toll that the international embargo imposed following the invasion of Kuwait in 1991 has had on the Iraqi economy. Following the international embargo imposed by the UN Security Council in 1991, tourism in Iraq fell from more than $4 billion per year in 1991 to less than $500 million in 2001, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.

Even prior to the international embargo, Iraq relied on tourism to help make up the gap in income from oil exports, Mohammad said.

Iraq currently remains in a precarious economic position due to its underdevelopment, and is dependent on foreign aid.

“Many countries view Iraq as being fertile ground for tourism investment, but many countries are coming up with their own contingency plans [in the case of an invasion], or they are deciding to restrict tours to Iraq,” said Taha Khattab, a researcher and Iraq expert at the University of Washington.

An estimated 11 million tourists currently travel to the country each year, a figure that has increased steadily from 2000 and is only slightly less than it was prior to the Gulf War, according to Khattab.

About 90% of those visitors are either Iraqi or Arab, Khattab said.

But the generous visitor numbers is limited by the majority government restrictions on travel to Iraq.

Large-scale organized tours are only allowed during periods of conflict, which, while not always accidental, have resulted in commercial tours being set up for those interested in seeking a more traditional Arabian experience.

“For example, the Kuwaitis who went to Iraq for holidays, they had no press, no travel industry, nothing. They would travel to their base camps [known as] Shalalania and then catch the best boats back to Kuwait,” said Khattab.

Those small group tours help boost Iraq’s position as a tourist destination. For example, when pilgrims come to Iraq to visit the holy mosques in Mecca and Medina, they often opt to stay in local hotels rather than the traditional tour-based guesthouses in Mecca.

Mohammad believes the renovation of the Khan al-Khalili Museum is an opportunity to promote the potential of the country as a destination, and hopes it will revive tourism to Iraq.

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