By Waheed Ghanem, in Basra
After three decades of cruising the open seas, the Iraqi government’s very own superyacht, the Basra Breeze, has come to a standstill. She is anchored in the Shatt al-Arab, in the city whose name she bears, while potential users and owners fight about who should be sailing her and who should pay the bill for her upkeep.
Both the University of Basra and Basra’s port and maritime authority have claimed the yacht.
“After the late president, Jalal Talabani, presented the yacht to the University of Basra for scientific research purposes, we were also told that it should be registered in the name of the Ministry of Transport, and our company, to enable financing for its upkeep,” argues Mahdi Askar, manager at the state-owned General Company for Maritime Transport.
The university had been using the superyacht for research purposes and as a site for seminars while the port authority is responsible for the craft’s maintenance and management. Because the superyacht belongs to the Iraqi government, neither party have the authority to sell or lease it out.
The Basra Breeze was originally built in 1981 for former Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, by a Danish shipyard, Helsingor Vaerft. It cost US$25 million at the time. It is estimated to be worth over four times that now.
The irony is that Hussein never even set foot on the boat because it was to be delivered just as the Iran-Iraq war broke out in the early 1980s. It wasn’t possible to moor the superyacht in Iraq because of the fighting so it was left in Oman and loaned out to various Gulf State royal families.
“Saddam believed that the war against Iran wouldn’t go on that long and that he would eventually be able to get the boat,” says the Basra Breeze’s captain, Hussein Ghazi Khalifa. In fact the war went on for around eight years.
“As far as I know, the Danish only made two such yachts ever and one of them is this ship,” Khalifa told Al Menassa.
The yacht, which is 82 meters long and weighs 2,494 tons, was mostly used to shuttle wealthy Gulf families between France and their homelands. The boat has 16 guest rooms, a small theatre and a helipad; it even has the capability to launch missiles.
“After the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the Iraqi government demanded that the yacht – which was then anchored in Nice in France – be returned,” recalls former Iraqi transport minister, Amer Abdul-Jabbar. After the government reclaimed the boat, it tried to sell it but had no success.
“There were a lot of things that made a sale difficult,” Abdul-Jabber explains. “Not least politics – the superyacht was a symbol of the former regime and there were fears that somebody would buy and use the boat for propaganda purposes. The sale price was low, about US$4 million, and debts on the yacht – things like port fees and crew wages – were estimated at US$2 million.”
By then the Basra Breeze had been moved to Greece and a delegation from the Ministry of Transport made their way there, to reclaim the boat and pay off creditors. They had already had to wrangle with remaining members of Saddam Hussein’s family who said the boat must be theirs. However the Iraqi government was able to prove ownership, Abdul-Jabbar explained. And the superyacht eventually reached Iraq in November 2010.
Touring the superyacht today and there are signs that the vessel needs some maintenance. It’s still glamorous but some of the outer and inner structure needs work, the captain, Khalifa, reports.
There are rumours that amenities are luxurious and gold plated but Khalifa says these are untrue. It’s just paint, he notes. There are four floors, with the lower one reserved for services, sailors’ accommodation and engine rooms. The third floor houses the presidential suite, an office, a barber shop and several large halls suitable for events. There is even a secret room that would have been meant as a secure panic room for the former Iraqi president. On the fourth floor is officers’ accommodation and the bridge, as well as a small medical clinic and pharmacy.
Given the boat’s history it is also ironic that its next port of call will most likely be in Iran. Khalifa says that various shipyards, including Basra’s own, were queried about the cost of maintenance for the superyacht and a private facility in Khorramshahr (also known as Muḥammarah in Arabic) in Iran had made the best offer.
Khalifa says they are still trying to figure out exactly what to do with the superyacht and how to finance it in the future. It’s a big drain on the university’s budget, he argued.
The original shipyard in Denmark had offered to use the superyacht as a kind of museum in northern Europe because it was something they were proud of building, he continues. “In return they would give us a specialized marine research vessel,” Khalifa notes. “We have also had other similar offers – for example, somebody wanted to start a wax museum onboard – but we have turned them down because we are worried that those who still hate Saddam Hussein could take revenge on the boat.”
Other investors have suggested turning it into a floating casino and some want to use it as a luxury cruise liner, travelling between Iraq and the Gulf States.
For now though, the Basra Breeze will most likely continue with its research missions – Basra University has several joint science projects planned, cooperating with Iranian and Gulf state researchers, in the near future.