The Paradise of Investment
Basra - Last night I attended a highly unusual event.
Lord Mandelson and 25 suited and booted captains of British industry flew in for an investment conference at the airport here. It was described as the highest ranking British trade delegation to Iraq in more than 20 years.
In the terminal's function hall generals, businessmen and imams mingled. It looked a little like some Chomsky-ite nightmare of Middle Eastern oil, armies and politics coalescing into a seamless web of common interest. But I suspect the attitude of many people in the UK to chasing business opportunities in Iraq is more complex than some ideologists would allow.
Should not the sacrifice of 179 British lives, hundreds seriously wounded and billions of pounds buy the UK some kind of consideration from the Iraqis? If you believe strongly that it shouldn't, then should British companies be at some kind of disadvantage to those of other countries that contributed nothing to stabilising the post-Saddam mayhem or creating the mood of cautious optimism that now prevails in this great trading city? Should Britain get nothing at all for its trouble?
The Governor of Basra, Mohammed al-Waeli, launched the conference by describing his province as the "Paradise of Investment". Leaving aside hyperbole that may strike many at home as comical, it's remarkable to see this man, who was once one of the British army's loudest critics, roll out the red carpet for Lord Mandelson and his delegation. Talking to the governor afterwards his attitude might be paraphrased as, "let's let bygones be bygones - now we'll do business".
Some people here feel that the locals and Brits are not quite on the same page - that essentially many Basrawis expect Britain to come in and re-build their neglected infrastructure, including paying for it, as a further act of generosity or perhaps penance for invading. British businessmen on the other hand have grasped that Iraq is a major oil state with tens of billions of dollars in cash that can afford to pay foreign companies to upgrade everything from oil pipelines to ports or railways.
At the official level though there is a common understanding that if Iraq wishes to secure its future and put the estimated 30% unemployed in this province to work, it will have to start laying out lots of cash. For recession-hit western economies it is therefore an attractive opportunity.
The real issue for those in Britain whose jobs might be under threat might not then be whether the UK is going to get some grubby payback from a "war for oil" but whether the government is doing enough to seize its chance. Hence Britain dispatched this week's trade delegation.
One of the presentations was on the modernisation of Umm Qasr port. We heard that Japan had provided $500m in soft loans, that Turkey had won a contract to clear sunken ships from the shipping lanes, and that French and US companies were now getting to work modernising some of the jetties. Hearing discussions like this, I and others wondered not whether Britain was right to be seeking such contracts, but whether it has actually been slow out of the starting blocks, with various countries already stealing a march in the competition for business?