The political atmosphere in Iraq has changed “decisively” following victory over terror group IS, paving the way for British businesses to build trade ties with the Arab country.
Jon Wilks, the British ambassador to Iraq, also believes that Iraqis in general are more realistic about the risks they face following the rise and fall of IS.
On a visit to Leeds, Mr Wilks said: “The time is now right, as we’ve entered a post-conflict phase after the military and territorial defeat of IS, for British business to really make big progress in Iraq.”
Despite recent turmoil, Iraq is “fundamentally a rich country”, says Mr Wilks, producing five million barrels of oil a day. It also has a growing young population.
“Iraq is a country that has gone through 40 years of conflict and 40 years of difficulty and challenge but it’s come through the other side,” Mr Wilks told The Yorkshire Post.
Mr Wilks has spent three separate stints in the country. He was there in 2003, 2009/10 and has been there from 2017 to the present day. The ambassador accepts that there have been false dawns when it comes to the security situation improving in the past but that this time it’s different.
He said: “If we look at the indicators, we can see that violence and security problems are at their lowest levels for about five years but there is still a Daesh presence there – a rural insurgency.
“So it’s quite right to say there is an ongoing challenge and that there needs to be an ongoing campaign.
“What I’ve noticed, and I’ve worked three times in Iraq, is that the political atmosphere has been changed decisively by the victory over Daesh.”
There are currently 200 UK businesses operating in the Middle Eastern country with trade up 10 per cent.
Last year, Iraq hosted its elections with the British Embassy keeping an eye on proceedings.
“We tested out that the Iraqis could get through their elections, that governments would be good partners for us and deal with these security problems,” Mr Wilks said. “They did that. That’s why I feel confident that we can build successfully on this progress in our business and trade relationship in the years to come.”
British businesses can take advantage of opportunities in infrastructure, education and technology across a variety of sectors, according to Mr Wilks, as Iraq looks to rebuild.
He added: “Clearly, we’ve got some really high quality exporting companies in Yorkshire.
“There’s a great tradition here of taking a managed risk and of being courageous and of being up for a challenge. All of those things are necessary. This is a frontier market. It’s not for the faint-hearted but British businesses are already there.”
Mr Wilks was visiting Yorkshire as part of a trade roadshow. The event was supported by the Department for International Trade (DIT) Iraq and the British Embassy in Baghdad.
A key initiative to boosting trade overseas has been UK Export Finance, Britain’s official export credit agency, says Mr Wilks.
A patchy legal framework, bureaucracy and corruption in certain areas present a challenge, says Mr Wilks, “but we have in recent years through the Embassy and through the support of the Iraq Britain Business Council found ways through all of this to make sure that British business can work effectively”.
Brexit an opportunity
The Iraqi leadership is “knowledgeable” about the UK and has been following the debate around Britain’s membership of the European Union, says Jon Wilks.
He said: “They see, on balance, an opportunity with Brexit because they know the UK will be focused on markets outside of Europe and will be making extra effort and taking extra risk to build relations, particularly with countries with whom we’ve had a traditional relationship like Iraq.”
The ambassador added that the different Brexit scenarios were unlikely to impact this relationship.