BAGHDAD—Considering the events
of the past several months, investing in Iraq wouldn't sound like
the safest bet. But the threat of war didn't prevent an impressive
turnout at the annual Baghdad International Trade Fair that wrapped
up on Sunday. Representatives of nearly 1,200 businesses from 49
countries came to display their products in the strongest showing
at the fair since the onset of the 1991 Gulf War.
There were no American companies present and only one from Washington's
junior partner Britain. Significantly, Iraq's former adversaries
Saudi Arabia and Iran both had large pavilions. Western Europe was
also well represented. France, Iraq's largest western trade partner,
had 81 companies housed at its massive pavilion.
"The importance of this fair is that it is a clear message that
despite the risk of bombing, all these companies and all these countries
still believe in peace," said Jihad Feghali, the managing Director
of France's Nutris Company.
Feghali was one of the most political businessmen at the fair. In
2000 he organized the first humanitarian flight from Paris to Baghdad
in protest of the sanctions. He knows well how difficult it is to
do business with Iraq. His company sells industrial equipment and
biomedical systems. He deals in goods that have been consistently
banned by Washington. Feghali says that the US dominated sanctions
committee at the UN that reviews contracts between Iraq and international
companies is constantly delaying and holding up his contracts for
review of dual-usage i.e. military value.
"You can take anything for dual-usage," Feghali told Iraqjournal.org.
"Baby milk can be dual-usage, anything can be dual-usage." He points
to a contract his company has for developing a milk bottling line,
saying the sanctions committee has held up the contract for more than
|Jihad Feghali, the managing Director of
the French Company, Nutris, serves cake to booth visitor in
the French pavillion of last week's International Trade Fair
in Baghdad. Photo by Thorne Anderson.
"A more civil contract you cannot have," he says. "[The committee]
asked lots of questions about the pumps, the pipes, lots of things
like that. I don't know how you can bottle milk without pumps. Maybe
these pumps can launch scud [missiles] over other countries; I'm not
military, so I don't know. We tried to give explanations but we lose
time and we lose money and we lose effort and its not the right way
of helping people to save the world economy."
Feghali also said that the sanctions create logistical nightmares
for contracts, even after they are approved. Nutris has been selling
Iraq cancer medications with isotopes that have a shelf life of 3-4
days. "It is very tough for us to supply the hospitals with these
products without using the airport and no airplanes go into Saddam
Airport from Europe, so we have to bring the medicines to Jordan and
then by truck overnight to Iraq. The products reach Baghdad after
2 or 3 days†sometimes quite at the end of their shelf-life."
These stories were repeated at booth after booth at the fair. Because
of the sanctions, Iraq is not permitted to buy anything directly.
Its oil revenues†generated under the so-called oil-for food program--
are put into an escrow bank account abroad and Baghdad must then apply
for permission to use the funds to purchase goods or services on the
world market. Over the last decade, Washington and Britain have consistently
blocked such items as pencils, chlorine and ambulances.
"Something like an incubator would take one year for getting the approval,"
said Daniel Le Borgne, CEO of the French company Cercomex, which also
deals in medical equipment.
|A pair of Iraqi biomedical engineers examine
an infant incubator in the French pavillion of last week's International
Trade Fair in Baghdad. Items such as incubators are difficult
to import into Iraq, which has been under severe trade sanctions
for the past 12 years. Photo by Thorne Anderson.
Le Borgne began doing business in Iraq more than 20 years ago. He
says his primary reason for trading with Iraq remains profit. But
since the imposition of sanctions in 1990, everything has gotten much
more difficult. In fact, Le Borgne said he had to get permission from
the US dominated sanctions committee to showcase the display model
of his latest incubator. He said the incubator needed to be checked
for possible military usage.
With war quite possibly on the horizon, many of the medical vendors
at the fair told Iraqjournal.org that Baghdad is increasing its purchases
of medical supplies and emergency equipment. But the sanctions are
hindering the preparations for responding to future destruction in
the country. Outside France's pavilion at the fair, the French auto-giant
Peugeot had new ambulances on display. But company spokespeople said
the sanctions committee has put significant limitations on the number
Baghdad can import.
"Its something very, very important, very needful for the health
organizations in Iraq," said Peugeot representative Jamal Salm. "But
there are less than 1,000 ambulances in Iraq, 600 of them Peugeots.
The World Health Organization evaluated the need for a territory like
Iraq at 3,500 ambulances."
Several businesses expressed fears of a massive attack on Iraq in
the next several months. "It's is frightening a lot of ship owners,"
said Henry Delannoy, a Senior Vice President at the shipping giant
CMA CGM, the world's 6th largest marine shipping company.
His massive freightliners bring goods through the Arabian Gulf into
southern Iraq, a definite frontline in any US attack on the country.
"Nobody knows what will happen to our ships; nobody knows what will
happen to our containers, so it is a risky area and this is why the
competition is much less than other areas."
Delannoy says that unlike other shippers, he is not worried about
his freightliners in the event of a full-scale war. In fact his company's
ships played a role during the Gulf War. "We lost no ships. On the
contrary, we put our ships at the disposal of US forces at the time."
While there were several businesses that said trading with Iraq was
a political statement, most said their motivation was profit, saying
they would do business in Iraq regardless of who is president. The
Iraqi government hailed the massive turnout at this year's trade festival
as a great success. For them it represents the culmination of years
of work repairing relations with most countries in the world. Iraq
has signed free trade agreements with several countries in the region
and has resumed trade with Saudi Arabia.
|The illuminated image of Iraqi president
Saddam Hussein appears in the festive atmosphere of last week's
International Trade Fair in Baghdad. Twenty-five foreign countries
were represented at the fair. U.S. and British companies were
not among the participants. Photo by Thorne Anderson.
But both Baghdad and its growing list of trade partners know that
their future in Iraq depends on decisions being made in Washington.
And for now, that future is very uncertain.
Scahill is an independent journalist, who reports for the nationally
syndicated Radio and TV show Democracy Now! He is currently based
in Baghdad, Iraq, where he and filmmaker Jacquie
Soohen are coordinating Iraqjournal.org,
the only website providing regular independent reporting from the
ground in Baghdad.