Saturday, November 27, 2010

British interest in Kurdistan grows while U.S. participation hits new low

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Erbil, Oct. 21 (AKnews) – British companies are more and more interested in the Kurdistan Region as their number increased to 39 in the international fair opened in Erbil on Monday from 2 in the previous one in September, while the U.S. participation hit a new low dropping to 0.23% down from 0.48% the previous show in September.

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On Monday, the sixth international trade fair was opened in Erbil, the capital of Iraq's Kurdistan Region, where 850 companies from 25 countries exhibited their products. They were all full of optimism to find investment opportunities in the secure region of Kurdistan.

Nine of the British companies exhibited their products individually, while the other 30 companies and trade associations were represented by the UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) led by Sir Andrew Chan. The UKTI is the British government department responsible for urging  international trade with the UK.

"Kurdistan is very different" says Mr Robb Huddow of the British UK Filter whose company exhibited separately.  UK Filter first engaged in business in Iraq in 1979.

Seven years after the 2003 invasion, the British government has now realized that Kurdistan is a prosperous market. They are now urging British companies to do business in Kurdistan, "but, we are 10 years late" said Mr Haddow, "Kurdistan has been a good market for the past 10 years"

Mr Haddow said the British did not come to invest in Kurdistan five years ago for two reasons: at that time, business was very good in Europe "so why go so far away as Kurdistan," and the second, "Kurdistan was not recognized as being different from Iraq"

The growing British interest in Kurdistan was attributed by Haddow to another reason; there is a division between business and politics "and this of course is so good, when I came to Iraq everything was politics during the time of Saddam."

Back in the 1980s there were strict state-imposed conditions for companies to work in Iraq. One of the things which kept foreign investors away was the "Penalty for failure" where businessmen failing to accomplish a project would be punished by death.

The presence of the British government – for the first time ever – represented by the UKTI signals a growing British government interest in the region of Kurdistan.

There are two more fairs in November and December in Erbil. "Of course we will have more participation in Erbil" said Zaid Abdullah, senior trade and investment manager from the British Embassy in Iraq. "Now we understand Kurdistan is the gateway for business in Iraq."

UKTI will help UK-based companies to "make their decisions to do business in Iraq, in general, and we help them to succeed in this market"


By contrast, only two U.S. companies participated in the sixth Erbil International Fair which amounts to only 0.23% of 850 companies in the show.

This figure, though double the number of the previous fair in late September when only one American company exhibited its products, is still twice lower in percentage. There were only 207 companies and the U.S. participation accounted for 0.48% then, and now there are 850.

 "The actual American people don't understand as much… they'd rather do business elsewhere. They don't understand the culture" says Amir A. Sabetian, chief financial officer of the U.S.-based Mach Oil.

Americans think that Kurdistan region is the same as Iraq. "They are afraid, I was afraid" said Sabetian, who is an Iranian-American. Being of Iranian origins, he better understands the culture and people here, otherwise he would not be here as well.

Sabetian says he decided to come to Kurdistan only after he saw on TV an American-Iranian singer visited the region. "A singer came three months ago; it was Googoosh who is an Iranian American singer (to hold a music concert in Erbil). She completely changed my perspective of Kurdistan"

After Googosh held the music concert, "I think I have it wrong, and when I came here, I saw that I completely had it wrong" said Mr. Sabetian.

Kurdistan is dubbed by observers "The Other Iraq" for its security, stability, economic growth and prosperity.

The U.S. government has desperately tried to urge businessmen to come to Iraq. They have a special designated Iraq program for businesses that "we are going to help you do business in Iraq" according to Sabetian. But it seems that it is no use.

Sabetian believes that the fair organizing company should go to show in the United States themselves and tell the American people that it is safe to do shows in Kurdistan, and let the people know that Kurdistan is not the same as Iraq. "The growth of Kurdistan to me is surprising which I am going to relay that back to my people"

"I think that Iraq needs to do more; there is so much the government can do. I don't think they are going to do commercials and go to shows in the U.S."

Shthwan al-Maqdisi, operations manager of IFP which organized the show said they had contacted the U.S. embassy, consulate and the U.S. chamber of commerce. "But every time, the maximum number of American companies that participate is five"

But to Mr Robb Huddow, director of UK Filter ,  Kurdistan is too small a market for the U.S. to do business in and a long way away.

"The Americans don't want to come such a distance; their focus is on their internal market and South America." Said Mr Haddow.

South America has a population is about 500 million, while Kurdistan is 5 million. "So, if you were an American businessman where would you go?"

Still, he believes that it is in the hands if the Kurds to promote their country and change the picture the westerners have of Kurdistan. "The British are fed up with hearing the war in Afghanistan, and they think that Kurdistan is the same as Afghanistan"

It is more an American problem than a British one. "because there are 300 million of them yet only 5 million of them are abroad" he says, "when we ruled the world, there were only 50 million of us and 20 million were outside, in New Zeland, Australia…"

According to him, the KRG has been successful in its efforts to promote Kurdistan in the past few years. In June, a Kurdish delegation visited London to participate in an economic conference where they were a "phenomenal success".

"The measure of the KRG's success is that that the British who sleep all day have now woken up and they have come, there are not many, but next year, if everything is OK there will be double the number of British companies."

Huddow also drew attention to the fact that there are many fairs in Kurdistan each year while there does not need to be more than one because Kurdistan is not a big enough place to have more than one fair. One big fair a year is better than several smaller ones, he said.


Reported by Raber Y. Aziz, (contact Raber at: raber.younis@aknews.com)

Edited by Karl Allen