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A New Hotel, Where the Stay Used to Be Mandatory

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Trailers once home to soldiers at Camp Bucca are now being used as hotel rooms.
Published: December 3, 2011

UMM QASR, Iraq — The road approaching the Basra Gateway hotel in southern Iraq crosses a landscape so blighted with trash and spilled crude oil, which shimmers in gigantic pools in the sand, that it is difficult to imagine any guests ever passing this way.

When they do arrive, guests are greeted by a jumble of concrete blocks, sand bags and barbed wire — the hotel’s front gate. Instead of a doorman, Basra Gateway employs a gunman.

He smiles and pulls back a coil of razor wire, welcoming travelers to this improbable hotel, which has opened within what used to be Camp Bucca, an American prison base with a notorious reputation among Iraqis.

Basra Gateway is one of the fledgling efforts by Iraqi companies to make good commercial use of hundreds of recently abandoned American military bases — usually desolate, off-putting ensembles of concrete on the edges of towns. The hotel’s developer and operator, the Kufan Group, is hoping to lure executives from oil and oil-services companies that operate in the nearby fields. The trailers-cum-hotel rooms go for about $190 a night, and they can be booked only in blocks in advance.

“The dream that we have is to turn this into a commercial oasis,” said Maythem H. al-Asadi, Kufan’s president. “It’s only a matter of time.”

The company’s venture, as with others that have taken over American bases, relies on hundreds of American military residential trailers, known as CHUs, from the acronym for containerized housing unit. They had once accommodated guards. Kufan workers installed indoor plumbing in some, creating the guest rooms.

Besides the few upgrades to the trailers, the prison remains unaltered and eerily empty, the wind whistling through the old guard towers.

The United States military is handing over all bases to the Iraqi government by the end of the year. Only about a half-dozen of the 505 bases in Iraq are still in American hands.

Most are becoming Iraqi military bases, with some exceptions. The Saddam Hussein-era palaces at the Victory Base Complex near Baghdad, once used by American generals, for example, may become a convention center.

Other bases, left empty by the Americans, were promptly looted of air-conditioners and refrigerators, items now showing up in Iraqi flea markets.

The Kufan Group obtained Camp Bucca from the Iraqi government at an auction, with an eye toward creating a hotel, logistics center and container storage area for the oil industry. At first glance, it hardly seems an auspicious site: the panoramic scene of storm fencing and coiled razor wire resembles nothing so much as the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and its former function was similar.

Regardless, the hotel opened on Nov. 24 to coincide with an oil and gas conference in nearby Basra. Amar Latif, Basra Gateway’s general manager, said his guests appreciate “our many layers of dirt berms” and other walls.

The transformation is emblematic of one particularly optimistic vision, held by some businessmen, of what Iraq may become after the American withdrawal, despite lingering sectarian tensions and persistent insurgent violence. Iraq, they say, is poised now to move quickly from war to an oil boom of historic proportions that will quickly inflate the economy and generate exceptional opportunities for companies that get in early.

The city of Basra, despite its present impoverished appearance, sits above immense wealth. Oil production, mostly from fields near here, is projected to increase faster in Iraq than in any other country in the world over the next 25 years, according to International Energy Agency projections.

If all goes well, production in Iraq will rise by an additional five million barrels per day by 2035, bringing the total to more than eight million barrels per day. For comparison, that is more than a third of all the oil consumed each day in the United States, a vast fortune in energy.

As the military leaves, the oil-services companies Halliburton, Baker Hughes, Schlumberger and Weatherford International are expanding operations, hopeful of economic growth. General Electric opened three offices in Iraq in November, a month before the last American soldier is to march out.

At the former American prison camp, for example, oil companies are considering renting space on a permanent basis for employees, according to the Kufan Group.

“Exxon loved it,” Mr. Latif said of the former Camp Bucca. Their representatives visited half a dozen times, he said, to examine the security arrangements, taking in the sprawl of razor wire and concrete walls and exclaiming, “Oh boy, it’s excellent!”

On the downside, Iraq’s security situation is still so dismal that a former prison appears alluring as a hotel.

About 150 executives who came to explore opportunities in the petroleum business in southern Iraq at the conference last month wound up here. Opening day did not go smoothly. Partly that was because not all of the executives, who had booked accommodations through the conference organizers, had been told they would be staying in a prison camp until the bus pulled up at the guard post outside.

“People complained,” said Loay Almalaieka, a vice president of the Kufan Group. The new plumbing burst in some rooms. “We couldn’t achieve a great level of satisfaction with these executives, for obvious reasons.”

One delegation of Swedes, distraught at staying in this eerie hotel, checked out early; it is not clear where they went, Mr. Almalaieka said.

The operators acknowledge that Basra Gateway is a work in progress. After all, the previous tenants had no right to be finicky. “We are trying to create a more homey atmosphere,” said Andrew D. Quaile, a project manager with the Cater Corporation, an Australian contractor handling the food service.

Still, the Kufan Group also plans to re-open the even more desolate detainee portion of the camp. There, inmates lived in tents ringed by the dirt walls. In a sign of the changing Iraq, that area might be used now for laborers from South Asia who work in the oil fields, the company said.

“We don’t call them prison tents now,” Mr. Latif said. “They are low-cost, high-density accommodation.”

Zaid Thaker contributed reporting.

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