Official says safer Iraq is good investment for Wash.

Cameron Drews
The Spectator
October 5, 2011
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Naufel Al-Hassan, commercial counselor at the Embassy of Iraq in Washington D.C., made his first-ever visit to Seattle last Wednesday to urge Washington state's private sector to invest in Iraq's developing infrastructure. In 2007 and 2008, Al-Hassan served as the Foreign Relations Advisor to the Iraqi Prime Minister.

David Hamod, president and CEO of the National U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce, has been accompanying Al-Hassan on his tour, and the two of them have been giving presentations across the U.S. to demonstrate why American companies should consider doing business in the Middle East.

"This is an initiative to carry the message to Americans outside the beltway," said Hamod, "and an extraordinary opportunity for people to learn firsthand about the commercial situation between the United States and Iraq."

According to Hamod and Al-Hassan, Iraq's security situation is becoming more and more manageable and they have been conveying to potential investors that Iraq is a safe place to do business.

"It's also an opportunity," added Hamod, "to set the record straight about the conditions in Iraq and to clear up any misconceptions."

It was Hamod who kicked off the presentation at the Discovery Institute in Seattle on Wednesday. Currently, the top 10 states that export goods to Iraq are Texas, South Carolina, California, Arkansas, Alabama, Ohio, Louisiana, New York, Oregon and Georgia.

"Oregon made the top 10," said Hamod. "What's wrong with this picture? If Oregon can do it, then so can you."

Last year Oregon exported $51.83 million worth of goods to Iraq while Washington only exported $7.63 million worth. Washington's contributions to the Arab world currently include transportation equipment, agricultural products, computer and electronic products, non-electrical machinery, and food and kindred products. The U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce expects Washington to eventually be among the top five exporters to the country.

"Iraq was disengaged from the world for almost three decades," explained Al-Hassan when he took the podium.

Hamod described the multiple areas in need of support, spending most of his time on the financial, health, tourism and commerce sectors. The financial sector is composed primarily of two national banks, Rafidain and Rasheed, which account for 90 percent of all banking assets in the country. Only 36 banks in the country are run by private companies.

Al-Hassan and Hamod are looking to increase that number. According to one of Al-Hassan's PowerPoint slides, Iraq requires a network of around 3,000 branches, and right now they only have 900.

The presentation also called for more private hospitals to supplement the overcrowded government health clinics.

The potential for tourism was another point on the list. Al-Hassan suggested that Iraq hosts several events that could easily become as popular as the Super Bowl is in the United States.

However, from an American investor's point of view, the day-to-day safety concerns might still serve as a deterrent. An influx of tourism might not be as imminent as Al-Hassan has suggested.

Negative press—like last Friday, when the New York Times reported that a car bomb had gone off at funeral just 60 miles south of Baghdad—may still serve as a deterrent to tourists. The article stated that even though "officials claim success in stabilizing Iraq, random attacks and assassinations are still daily occurrences."

Despite these kinds of reports, Al-Hassan wants to assure American businesses that the safety situation is improving.

"I look at history as something to learn from and not something to live in," he said. "I think we are learning. We know our weaknesses, and we know of challenges down the road."

Ultimately, however, it will be up to the American investors to decide.