Photographer: Shawn Baldwin/Bloomberg

U.K. Company Building Iraq Airport to Fly Millions of Pilgrims

  • Copperchase won contract for first phase of Karbala airport
  • Facility to handle up to 2.5 million passengers a year: Salih

Copperchase Ltd., a U.K.-based contractor, began the first phase of construction of an airport in central Iraq that will help ease travel for millions of religious pilgrims who visit the city of Karbala each year.

The company is building a runway, terminal, control tower and other facilities at a cost of between $250 million and $500 million, Nahidh Mohammed Salih, chairman of its Iraqi business, said Tuesday in a phone interview. Copperchase, based in Poole, U.K., won the contract last week, and the first phase of work will be completed in 18 to 24 months, he said.

The airport will make it easier for Shiite Muslims to visit Karbala and nearby Najaf, which they consider to be holy cities. The project also plays a part in efforts by Iraq, the second-largest member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, to diversify its oil-dependent economy. Oil prices have fallen by more than half from 2014 levels, squeezing the government’s budget.

The airport will have a capacity for 2 million to 2.5 million passengers a year once the first phase is built, Salih said. The project will be funded by Khayrat Al Sobtayn, the finance arm of Iraq’s Imam Hussein Shrine foundation, he said.

“This investment came at a time when world oil prices dropped sharply, and the government is in dire need for money to finance budget gap,” Salar Mohammed Ameen, vice chairman of the National Investment Commission, said by phone.

Salih estimated the project’s three planned phases will cost a total of $2 billion. Work on the second and third phases will depend on demand, he said.

Most visitors travel to Iraq for religious occasions, mainly to Shiite sites in Karbala and Najaf. Pilgrims mostly come from Iran, Pakistan, India, Bahrain, Qatar, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and European countries.

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