James Thornett

Sake bombs over Baghdad

James Thornett established the Baghdad Country Club in the Green Zone in 2004. It quickly blossomed into one of the most popular watering holes in this corner of the former axis of evil, providing Western amenities of the liquid variety to thirsty members of the coalition of the willing to drink.

Thornett, a Brit who had taken part in the invasion, promised his patrons fine dining, an extensive wine list, Cuban cigars, and an exclusive ambiance. “If James Bond were to walk off the pages of a book,” the bar’s website suggested, “if Hemingway was again reporting on the world’s troubles, they could probably both be found relaxing over a drink at the Baghdad Country Club.” Instead, the tavern’s plastic lawn furniture and gravel yard became a redoubt for those unseen casualties of war: bored contractors doing twelve-hour shifts, six days a week.

Not everyone was delighted. Some disgruntled customers denounced the club as nothing but a “sleazy place for mercenaries and rednecks.” Others complained that the kitchen was usually out of the Euro-Arab fusion dishes advertised on the online menu; that the service was poor; and that the tables were set with paper towels instead of napkins. But the BCC earned high marks from some for employing a comely barmaid named Heidi, recently graduated from college in Florida.

In 2007, as violence in Baghdad spiraled out of control and threatened to penetrate the gates of the emerald city, US authorities moved to shut down the club. Now, with calm returning, Thornett is considering reopening. I spoke with him about the history and future of the Baghdad Country Club and the business of doing business in wartime Iraq.

Alexander Provan: How did you end up doing this?

James Thornett: I was a paratrooper in the British Army during the invasion. Soon after, a friend of mine called to tell me that his company had picked up the contract to run security for the Green Zone and the US Embassy, and he was looking for a project manager. I did that for a while, then worked for another company as director of intelligence. I’d been in Baghdad for a couple of years and knew a lot of people, and one thing just led to another. It wasn’t really a grand plan to go in there and open a bar and restaurant, but it fell into place through a chain of coincidences. A friend of mine had the rights to duty-free alcohol in Iraq, and we started buying decent wine and Western-standard spirits.

AP: So you decided to hunker down in the Green Zone.

JT: Yeah, I guess you could say I was hunkered down. The Mahdi Army and Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq were becoming very prominent in life in Baghdad at that time.

AP: Were you ever singled out because you were involved in importing alcohol?

JT: No. Before I opened the bar I spoke with a number of prominent Iraqis. And before the bar, I sold wine and spirits out of a shop. I was working there for five years. I’m not naive. I have many Iraqi friends, including the chief of police—not some gentlemen I bumped into on the street, but high-level individuals who were well placed to give me advice on things like this. To a man, not one of them had a problem with it. SCIRI even had a place next door to the restaurant, and even those guys never had a problem with it. They just said, “Look, as long as you keep the music down at certain times of the night and don’t create a nuisance, we don’t have a problem with you.” Even during Ramadan, some people from Sadr’s group came around and said, “Look, it’s Ramadan coming up, James. We know what you do here. Do us a favor and close down at night. You can sell the alcohol during the day, we’ve got no problems with that, but just make sure it’s in a bag.” So that’s what we did.

AP: Did you have many Iraqi customers?

JT: Yeah. I wouldn’t say it was predominantly Iraqi, but I’d say 30 percent were Iraqi, including ministers and high-ranking generals in the army. Again, we weren’t thrusting something down their throats. It wasn’t a disco or a nightclub, it was somewhere that people could come and have a nice glass of wine, or a whiskey, or a coke, whatever it may be. I was told by a Norwegian friend of mine who’s lived in Baghdad since 1980 that, up until the sanctions, Baghdad was like Dubai is these days. It was a very liberal and secular society, with many bars, restaurants, and clubs. The sanctions kind of put a damper on the club scene. And then the war kind of put a damper on everything, because Baghdad had descended into what some would argue was chaos. Places still existed, but it wasn’t anything you and I as Westerners would understand. What I wanted to do was try and bring a kind of Western standard. Iraqis were not excluded, of course, as long as they had the correct ID badge.

AP: How did the US army respond?

JT: Most of them were absolutely fine with the whole thing. The military prohibits anyone from drinking while on duty, so I had a sign saying that we will not serve US soldiers in uniform. But to be fair, I can’t be held responsible if a US soldier comes in. There was only one particular US officer who had more of a problem — he was responsible for security in the Green Zone and had too much time on his hands, and I was an easy target. He and his officers had precious little else to do. They became really… overly exuberant in their jobs.

AP: Is this still a major problem in Iraq — the difficulty for businesses and corporations to operate independently of the US government?

JT: After a conflict like this, there are going to be problems with private individuals operating in that environment. But it’s an environment that has many, many opportunities, and for now it’s difficult to really grasp some of those opportunities without help from the US. But it’s becoming much better. As the situation improves, you’ll get a number of larger corporations starting to head in there.

AP: Did you shut down during those periods in which security in the Green Zone was deteriorating? Was there ever any fear among the clientele that it was no longer safe to go there?

JT: No. Mind you, there had been suicide attacks in the Green Zone in 2004. People died. That closed most of the cafes down. Most of them were run by Iraqis, and many of them weren’t the legal owners of the land. After the invasion, a lot of people had left and other people just squatted on-site. And then you had that spate of suicide attacks in some of the military compounds. It was a problem. But we took the view of, you know, we’re all big boys and girls here. We’re in the Green Zone. So, in theory, it’s reasonably secure anyway. We did our best to provide some security at the gates. You can’t live in that environment without taking some chances, I’m afraid. Was it a target? Yes, it probably was. Did anything happen? No, it didn’t.

AP: Even though the bar is closed, your merchandise is selling well online.

JT: People like souvenirs from places like that. That’s just the way human nature is.

AP: How have you supported yourself otherwise?

JT: It would be fair to say that it’s just one of the businesses I own. I trade in other commodities.

AP: When did you leave Baghdad?

JT: Shortly after the club closed down. I pop back in for business trips, but I don’t live there.

AP: Do you have a sense of if or when the club will be fully operational again?

JT: Well, it’s difficult in Baghdad. We’re trying to move the club to the Baghdad International Airport. That’s where most of the Westerners tend to be located now. That’s the growth area. It’s been steadily heading that way for about two years now. The idea was that the Green Zone was going to be given back to the Iraqis after the new US Embassy opened. A lot of companies are relocating to BIAP, where there’s more land. It makes transportation easy for them as well.

AP: Have you found that increased stability has produced greater business opportunities for both internationals as well as Iraqis?

JT: Clearly. The other day I did some work with a New York–based hedge fund that’s specializing in Iraq, Northern Gulf Partners. I was putting them in contact with a friend of mine who has the rights to True Value Hardware in Iraq and is opening a number of stores in secure compounds across the country. The country needs a complete overhaul of infrastructure, so anything that has to do with infrastructure is going to go well. They’re going to need expertise from the US to set up a communications network. Transportation networks are going to have to be improved, water systems, electricity systems. And Iraq sits on a tremendous oil reserve. Whenever a country has a tremendous oil reserve, even given the oil prices at the moment, they are naturally going to be a wealthy country.

AP: Which means that the prospects for the country club reopening are pretty good?

JT: I think so. But it’s hard living over there. I did it for five years. The whole issue about the club is that it was an escape for people, so that they could live. When you serve in environments like that, you have to live. There are only so many DVDs you can watch, only so many books you can read, only so many people you can talk to. You need to have an escape. People say, “How could you open a club while our soldiers were fighting over there?” Well, nobody understands the plight of a soldier more than me. I would never do anything to offend them. And while soldiers may be over there for a year, a contractor can be over there three, four, five years. It’s healthy for them to have somewhere to go to blow off some steam now and again. Anyway, there’s no reason why things like that shouldn’t be part of life in Iraq. People want to go out and have fun. You need to provide places for them to do that.