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Baghdad cabbies struggle with change as Green Zone opens up

Baghdad's taxi drivers face new challenges with the reopening of the Green Zone having to compete with ride share apps and helicopter and river transport services.

When Baghdad’s Green Zone, as the International Zone is commonly known, reopened to the public after 16 years, the city’s taxi drivers quipped that this may be the first and the last pledge kept by the government of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi. Then they started complaining, only half in jest, just how much of this one kept promise proved to be a challenge for drivers.

The opening of the Green Zone, as well as feeder roads, checkpoints and roadblocks, signals a fresh start for Baghdad. While this is a positive indication of the city’s improved security, the sudden opening originally presented a challenge for taxi drivers. Ali Jasim, who has driven a taxi in Baghdad for the last three years, told Al-Monitor, “The opening happened overnight. In fact, when I first tried to enter I notified the guards with the news on my phone so they would let me in.”

During the first few weeks, Jasim has gotten in a few arguments with passengers as each side conjured up two-decade-old memories to argue over the fastest route. “I let Google [Maps] settle it,” he laughed, making sure to point out he had been right most of the time.

Home to embassies and Iraq’s sprawling bureaucracy, the 4-square-mile zone in central Baghdad had been off-limits since the US invasion in 2003. Before becoming known as “Little America,” it housed many palaces under Saddam Hussein. Both the imposing concrete barriers and gilded mansions reminded residents of both the literal and figurative divisions that have plagued Baghdad in recent memory.

When Amer Hussein Ali, a taxi driver since 2006, first drove into the area after all this time, he thought he had entered a different town. “I found a new city inside my city. The roads were paved and clean. Cars stayed in their lanes and stopped at red lights. Even the people seemed different. They were kind and didn’t honk at me,” he told Al-Monitor.

The zone's opening is regarded by many in Baghdad as a positive step. The city’s rush hour gridlocks have eased a bit, as drivers can use the Green Zone's prime central location to cut through the city. Iconic landmarks are now once again open to the public, including Al-Rashid Hotel, Al-Mansour Theater, the Victory Arch and the monument of the Unknown Soldier.

Jasim explained that Iraqis born after 2000 had no idea these places existed. He revels in experiencing his passengers’ faces light upon their first sighting. Residents in and around the area were able to easily access their homes again. One elderly woman joked, “Now I have to invite my relatives over. I no longer have an excuse.”

Still, as Baghdad inches closer to having a population of 10 million, due to conflict-induced migration and urbanization, such changes are just a drop in the bucket compared to the infrastructure needs of this emerging megacity. Raed Khalil, who moonlights as a taxi driver to supplement his day job in security, told Al-Monitor, “New bridges and tunnels, maybe even a tram, can help clear up central Baghdad’s congestion.”

Taxi drivers, themselves a kind of urban antihero, have a checkered record in Baghdad. To many residents, they can be an annoying reminder of the challenges that plague Baghdad’s streets, including long-neglected roads, traffic jams and accidents. Previously, only Iraqis with special security badges could enter the Green Zone. According to one government official who wished to remain unnamed told Al-Monitor that some taxi drivers paid bribes to receive such highly coveted badges, gaining access to the area and charging prohibitively high rates to anyone desperate to meet with government officials or arrange for an appointment with an embassy. Now, apart from a few areas around the US Embassy and the Iraqi parliament, the Green Zone is open 24/7, effectively ending the racket of these opportunistic taxi drivers.

On the other hand, as ethnic conflict in the city grew in the wake of the US invasion, Baghdad became more and more segregated. Certain neighborhoods were a no-go zone and crossing into an area where another sect was dominant could mean death for a driver. Taxi drivers had to valiantly face the frontlines of the war and developed survival tactics, avoiding specific slang and religious iconography that may have incriminated them to Sunni or Shiite militants. Still, taxi drivers went out every day, facing such risks, to become an improbable, yet critical, link for the city during one of the darkest times in Iraq’s history.

In addition to all the current changes in the city, Baghdad taxis are losing ground, primarily by ridesharing apps, and face unprecedented competition to their self-given nickname as the “Kings of the Road.” The juggernaut is Careem, which was acquired by Uber in March and has expanded quickly since beginning operations in Baghdad last year. Mohamed al-Hakim, Careem’s general manager in Iraq, communicated via email about how his company proactively responded to the opening of the Green Zone and other streets across central Baghdad. “We work to reflect the map changes on our app when they happen quite rapidly, as well as educate our captains on these changes when they happen,” he told Al-Monitor. Regular trainings ensure Careem’s drivers use the tools effectively, an opportunity lost to the city’s taxi drivers.

Hakim said Careem has been successful because it embraces Baghdad’s changing conditions and tries to find opportunities. “Ultimately we see the opening of roads as a positive development in Iraq that indicates an improving security situation and a reduction in congestion on the streets,” he added. “Besides less congestion, our captains spend less time being tied up in traffic and are able to work more and increase their earnings within the same timespan. I believe that the opening of new areas has also unlocked new pockets of customers who are in need of our innovative transportation services.”

Apart from ride share and private car services, the city is also working to introduce a river taxi to move people across and along the Tigris River, which divides the city in half, resurrecting the river’s past role in city transit. Although the initiative only currently has two stations, it provides a cheap alternative to the city’s congested streets, particularly at each of the city’s 13 jammed bridges. And for the ultra-elite, Al-Burhan Airways claims to run Baghdad’s first helicopter taxi service, catering primarily to foreign investors.

Still, some taxi drivers aren’t worried, convinced their bright yellow cars will weather these changes and remain a dominant feature on Baghdad’s roads. Yassir Ibrahimi, who has driven a taxi for decades, compared taxi drivers to a societal thermostat, saying, “We notice things first in Baghdad, and we welcome these positive changes.”

Amid all the external developments, Ibrahimi admitted that the main problem he faces, known as the “fare paradox,” will not change; as long as fares are high, passengers will see their driver as the No. 1 enemy. 

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