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Let’s prove we’re serious about rebuilding Iraq’s economy

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The following was published on the website of Progress:

http://www.progressonline.org.uk/articles/article.asp?a=5543

 

If we are serious about transforming Iraq, we need to stop our policies from standing in the way of successful commercial and cultural relations.

 

It may take several weeks to form the new Iraqi government after its second parliamentary elections last Sunday but any Iraqi coalition will want to build commercial and cultural relations with the UK, if only we would make it easier to do so.

 

Everyone who understands and cares about Iraq says we should build deep and broad relations with all those many people, businesses and civil society groups that wish, after so many years of isolation, sanctions and dictatorship, to catch up with the rest of the world.

There is a thirst for knowledge, external investment and exchanges of all sorts.

 

But something stands in the way and is losing us friends, influence, trade and investment in what is becoming one of the most important emerging markets in the world.

 

Commerce is vital for them and they never hesitate to emphasise its importance. A left-wing leader told us, in terms: "we don’t have a bourgeoisie, can we borrow yours." Visits are a vital part of the equation, both for Iraqis and Brits.

 

Yet it is extraordinarily difficult for Iraqis to secure visas to come here but it is increasingly easy for them to secure Schengen visas to the rest of Europe as well as many other parts of the world.

 

The UK missions in Baghdad and Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region only issue visas to a limited range of people. Others have to secure a visa to enter Jordan and then apply for a UK visa. This means taking time off work, paying for hotels and food for an unknown period before being granted a visa or not.

 

We have now been to Iraq 9 times between us and have met countless people - academics, members of the active Chambers of Commerce, trade unionists - who have been through this and many have been refused, for reasons that are bewildering.

 

We entirely accept that we need to control our borders which means that some people should be refused but we have chapter and verse about people who have been refused but whose presence here would be of great value to our country.

 

We are thinking of a senior female trade union leader (a rarity in itself in the Middle East) who could have done much to spread the word that independent organisations are now back in Iraq and need support in their campaigns for full union rights.

 

We know of business people who seek, because they admire Britain for its expertise, and seek our friendship, to encourage trade and investment. We have heard of a wealthy Iraqi who wishes to invest here but is deterred by an inability to get a visa.

 

Some of these people have invites from Cabinet ministers and reputable organisations but are still refused or face such a rigmarole that they give up.

 

It’s certainly awkward. For example, many Deans recently attended a reception for the Rawabit education programme but had to spend a week in Amman, Jordan. We understand that some politicians including Governors have been also held up.

 

The visa problem is seriously impeding the creation of a web of political, cultural and educational links that are vital to the government policy of a new strategic relationship between our countries.

 

We have also met business people who can very much more easily visit Russia, Italy, France, Germany and other competitors. Who would blame them if they get the habit and abandon us?

 

This farce has gone on for far too long and the Border Agency must be brought into line with the interest of our foreign and trade policies.

 

In addition, we need to encourage direct flights between the UK and Iraq. Travel to Baghdad is still unsafe but for those who can go it requires an overnight stop on the journey there and back. It is much easier to visit the Kurdistan Region, which is much safer. The visitor can leave Heathrow at 6am and arrive in Erbil at 3pm the same day.

 

Without much easier visa provision and flights we will lose out as Iraq rebuilds itself. They always tell us that they want a wide range of exchanges as well as increased trade and investment but our practices and policies stand in the way.

 

Dave Anderson MP, Meg Munn MP and Gary Kent are from the

Labour Friends of Iraq - http://www.labourfriendsofiraq.org.uk/ 


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