Firms face risky Iraq business

Mid-East Uncategorized

The UK Foreign office advises against "all but the most essential travel" to Iraq but some businessmen have never seen a better time to go.

The security situation in post-war Iraq remains unstable with civil unrest rife and daily reports of coalition troops being attacked.

But for oil and construction executives the lure of going to Baghdad to survey business opportunites may prove too tempting.

Hostile environment courses are proving popular for businesses preparing their employees for a trip to the Iraqi capital.

And business is brisk in sales of bullet-proof vests.

Advice on personal safety, how to evacuate a building and first aid training are among the tips offered in the six-day hostile environment course offered by Woking-based Pilgrims Specialist Training.

Spokeswoman Sarah Storey said demand for the £2,000 course had been high since the end the war.

Reconstruction opportunities

And sales of protective gear are proving popular.

Spymaster gadget shop in London, specialises in kitting out visitors to conflict areas.

Its director Lee Marks said business has been booming in the last few weeks from UK construction businesses helping in the reconstruction of Iraq.

"Unfortunately, civil unrest in Iraq is coinciding with the rebuilding of the country’s infrastructure now the war is over, so speculators and planners risk coming under attack if they make the trip out there.

"This means you cannot be too careful about protecting yourself whilst you are there," he said.

The UK construction businesses are working under Bechtel – which has been selected to participate in the design, rehabilitation, upgrading, reconstruction, and construction of Iraq’s infrastructure.

Mr Marks said: "The main danger remains getting shot and insurance companies insist company’s employees are only sent over with adequate protection against this threat.

"The anger is targeted towards all people from the west.

"They don’t know who is a soldier in plain clothes and who isn’t, " he said.

Sniper rounds

Insurance policies insist that employees carry a jacket with him in case they become caught up in a hostile situation.

Mr Marks recommends people do the hostile environment training course before getting their protective clothing.

He said the death of British freelance journalist Richard Wilde, shot dead in Iraq last week, highlighted all too poignantly the dangers of being in the country.

At his shop Mr Marks has found demand for chemical suits and gas masks has declined but remained high for bullet-proof vests.

Businessmen and women can buy bullet-proof vests to wear under a shirt or go a step further and buy full jackets.

But the prices are high – more than £1,500 for the latest lightweight version.

David Horgan, chief executive of Dublin-based oil company Petrel Resources, returned from doing business in Iraq on 20 June.

His best protection in Baghdad was not a bullet-proof jacket – which he says only draws unwanted attention – but his Irish football shirt, which acted as a talking point and ice-breaker with Iraqis.

"The place is still in a state of paralysis. Many of our records were destroyed in looting, but fortunately all of our staff were okay."

Mr Horgan drove around Baghdad in a vehicle with other Iraqis, who would navigate the city safely for him by requesting permission from various controlling groups by satellite phone.

He said it was relatively easy for him to move around and see former employees of the Baath party’s Ministry of Oil, but warned this was in part due to the fact many of the senior officials had been British-educated.

"I wouldn’t advise any American businessman to go there for at least another year or two as I’m sure they would be shot at," he said.

But for British businesses considering jumping on the commercial bandwagon the risks remain.

Trade Partners UK – Iraqi Advice Division, considers the risks so great that it will only tell businesses venturing there that it cannot encourage them to do so in light of the country’s current insecurity.