Anbar's economic future promising after Dubai international investment conference

17 Jan 2007 | Cpl. Virginia K. Lawrence

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - The first formal business exchange between Iraq and the United Arab Emirates began the evening of Jan. 9-11, here. This conference was the first of its kind in the UAE, developed jointly by Iraqi businessmen and international companies conducting business in the UAE.

Approximately 160 Iraqi businessmen met approximately 400 representatives from UAE-based international companies specifically to discuss business opportunities in Iraq. The goal of the conference was to create an environment where the businessmen from both countries would be able to discuss opportunities for investment, trade, joint ventures and industrial growth in Iraq.

"The solution in Iraq needs an economic element. This conference will assist in aiding to the growth that is already occurring," said Brig.Gen. David G. Reist, Deputy Commanding General, Support, Multi-National Force-West, currently stationed in Al Anbar.

"Iraq is ripe with investment opportunities. Economic growth requires security, but security will not bring a solution alone. Investment and economic growth will create jobs that will lead towards security," Reist said.

While the conference included representatives from provinces throughout Iraq, such as Baghdad and Babel, it was structured heavily around economic development in the western province of Al Anbar.

According to Col. Mario LaPaix, commanding officer for the 4th Civil Affairs Group out of Naval District Washington, Washington D.C., Iraq is the big picture. When business leaders of the world put their heads together, an enticing economy can grow in Iraq.

The Iraqi businessmen were able to see the business development that was accomplished here because of economic leadership.

"This was the proper forum to give the Iraqis the vision; to see first-hand how an economy can be built up and how people can take and develop an idea," said LaPaix, from Brooklyn, N.Y. "Dubai was nothing but desert and a few buildings, and in less than 20 years we've seen a tremendous turn-around."

Presenters at the conference included the governor of Al Anbar, Iraq's deputy minister of industry and minerals, the deputy governor of Saladin, the deputy minister of trade and other Iraqi business and government officials and experts.

The governor of Al Anbar Province, Gov. Ma'moun Sami Rashied, hopes to see the same type of process and growth in Iraq as in Dubai, one of the seven emirates in the UAE.

Though security is an issue that remains a vibrant topic, Ma'moun wants people to know that Anbar is stable enough for people to invest in it.

Investors need to know more about the province and everything it has to offer, and such information comes from the media, Ma'moun said.

Ma'moun explains the reason why people should know more about his province.

"Most people are asking about the security in Al Anbar province; therefore, we must have good media," Ma"moun explained, all too familiar with the negative effects media has on his people and around the world, this is part of what keeps businessmen from investing in his country.

"We have many factories in our province now working, our country will not grow until the private sector grows,"said Ma'moun. "It can't just be the government to make our country grow, we need active businessmen, active investors, and it has to be international."

The United States Marine Corps has the Coalition Forces' responsibility for Al Anbar Province, and Marine leaders work daily with Ma'moun.

"If we can get Al Anbar Province going, we think that's a big plus for Iraq," Lapaix said. "Anbar plays a very important role and it's got a lot of financial capability, it has oil, and in the governor we see good leadership."

There are tremendous opportunities in Al Anbar to develop business, which would benefit Iraq, said Ma'moun.

"Contracting for reconstruction projects are in progress throughout the country, with a high demand for new construction, especially in private housing, explained Ma'moun.

"Iraq has vast resources, such as oil, gas, agriculture, not to mention human potential in a ready workforce, and even historic tourist sites, such as the Euphrates River," he said.

"I hope my country will be just as great as all these other countries, especially like the UAE, because Iraq actually has more in terms of resources than these other countries, especially Al Anbar Province," said Ma'moun.

The Iraqi people have always known the potential for their country, LaPaix said.

"It's not like they haven't heard about what's going on in Dubai, but when you bring Iraqis here to see it and to interact with the people that made it happen, then it becomes far more apparent, it's not just a theory," explained LaPaix.

The venue of the business conference demonstrates Iraqis are looking to move beyond the troubles of the region and heal the differences in their own populations. Investments and business growth will provide for all Iraqis in every corner of the country.

"I hope it's experiences like this that will help the Iraqis rise above their sectarian differences and see where their sectarian common cause will help them work together for a better Iraq," said Col. John A. Koenig, of Rumson, N.J., II Marine Expeditionary Force, Forward, currently based in Al Anbar.

Koenig focuses on the Marines patrolling the streets of Iraq and how their hard efforts tie into creating economic stability in the country.

The Marines, risking life and limb every day, should know the importance of what they are helping to create, Koenig added.

The progress on the security front, though it has been slow, is real progress which will in time allow the Iraqis to have economic development. This is counter-insurgency and a stabilization fight, and it's just on a different timeline than a conventional fight, Koenig explained.

As the Marines out there on patrols know, probably the thing most necessary for the average Iraqi in Al Anbar is to have a sense of hope for the future and what the Marines working to create a secure environment need to know is they are creating an environment that will allow this to happen, Koenig said.

This starts first by providing the security needed for the Iraqis to take these steps in creating economic stability.

"Security has to be brought to the region, that's the primary thing. Security first, investment second, they will always tell you that," explained 1stLt. Jason C. Smedley, a Public Affairs Officer for the 4th Civil Affairs Group, currently stationed in Al Anbar.

"We're doing these things at the same time, they almost go hand in hand," Smedley said. "How can you really have security if you don't have jobs? How can you have security if you don't have money to feed people?"

Many Iraqis ask what is it really going to take to establish security and economic viability. The answer may simply lie in these beginnings at the conference.

"Getting these businessmen together, bringing in politicians and getting them to work together, getting them to work with the central government to help stabilize and re-vitalize Al Anbar, that's what it's going to continue to take," Smedley said.

"Having American forces in Iraq right now to help in building the police, in building the Army, securing the area is the most important thing to bring investment, to bring economic opportunity," explained Sheik Ahmed Bazi, a businessman in Al Anbar.

That will increase the friendship between the people of Al Anbar and all people of Iraq, also between the Iraqis and the American forces and the American people, Bazi said.

"At the end of the day it's not a military victory, it's a political victory," Koenig said. "Politics and economic development require a secure environment. Every Marine out there right now will be parents and grandparents by the time some of these things happen. I know it's hard for the average Marine to think that today, but I have no doubt that 50 years from now it will be different."

But as far as the importance and impact of the conference, LaPaix said it was phenomenal, and it worked well. There were quite a few firms interested in talking with the Anbar businesses, and a lot of new interest was generated there.

"This is operational, this is not just a theory, this is not just what I feel inside, it's what I've seen," Lapaix said. "After the conference there were break-out sessions where discussions were held concerning power generation, agriculture, telecommunications, etc., amongst business leaders, and a tremendous exchange of information took place."

Ma'moun stressed the need for independent business in his country.

"I believe all countries that have become great, have not become great without relying on the private sector," said Ma'moun.

According to Reist, the Anbar government will continue to initiate and participate in conferences such as this one.

"The governor of Al Anbar has vision and sees the value of connecting with potential investors. His province is ripe for investment, the security situation is getting better and jobs created will only accelerate a peaceful resolution," Reist said.

This is business talking to business; simply put, that's when doors open, explained Ma'moun.