Walking the risk-reward tightrope in Iraq
Just last week more than 200 people were killed in suicide bombings across the country, while kidnapping and armed assault remain commonplace.
That said, more than 600 delegates still turned up to the Invest Iraq 2009 conference held in London this week, eager to find out what opportunities there might be in the oil, construction, petrochemicals, engineering, agriculture, transport and tourism industries, to name a few.
From City of London bankers to executives from Shell and Chevron, bosses from energy service companies and airport construction firms, management training specialists and security advisers, they were all there, milling around a west London hotel in their smartest suits, seeing what business they might be able to do.
There were plenty of Iraqis too. Mostly businessmen with operations outside the country — in Lebanon, Jordan or Dubai — and now looking to step up investment in their homeland.
Some of them, perhaps feeling more familiar with the lay of the land than Western investors, had already made sizeable moves into Iraq, but judging from the questions they were putting to the Iraqi officials speaking at the conference, they were concerned about a lack of legal direction from the government.
One Iraqi was particularly illustrative of the potential pitfalls that can befall investors.
During a seminar on Iraq’s new investment law, which is supposed to make it quicker and easier to pour money into the country, he stood up to ask a question. Dressed in a smart pinstripe suit, he looked every part the international entrepreneur as he grabbed the mircophone.
“I am worried,” he said, his concern audible in his voice. “I have $400 million invested in Iraq. I have built several hotels already and I am just completing the construction of a new 400-room, five-star hotel in Kerbala,” he said, referring to a religious city in southern Iraq that is a popular destination for religious tourism.
“I am worried,” he continued, “because I do not yet have planning permission for any of the buildings.”
There was silence in the room as the audience digested just how out on a limb he was.
“Have you asked for it?” a government representative on the panel asked.
“Yes,” said the man. “I asked three years ago and I keep asking but I have heard nothing.”
After a pause the government official mumbled something about the issue being tackled: “This is something that regional authorities should be looking at. They need to speed up the process,” he said, before moving on to the next question.
The businessman did not look particularly reassured as he sat back down.