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Wake up, you Brits. Make a fortune in Iraq

WED, 28 JUL 2010 14:59 | The Times

By Lord Jeffrey Archer

The Times, Opinion

The violence has subsided, ministers are begging us to come and we have the expertise.

News from Iraq has been spasmodic of late, with few suicide bombs to grab public attention. The most recent exploded the day after I left Baghdad last weekend, a city where security no longer appeared to be the biggest problem.

Today it is a boom town, rather than a bomb site. If I were a young man, looking to make my fortune, I would be off to Iraq like a shot. Plenty of other young men are there already - Russians, French, Germans, Swedes, Chinese of course, even Turks and Lebanese. As one local politician remarked, when the Lebanese arrive you know there is money to be made.

Nowhere is that more true than in the northern region of Kurdistan. The city of Erbil looks like Dubai 15 or 20 years ago. It still has the old market place, but now a magnificent Italian restaurant has just opened and eight new hotels have been built. The dusty road on which I entered the city 20 years ago is a four-lane highway. As we drove along, an old lady in black walked straight out in front of the traffic, not yet accepting that her traditional route to the shops would have to change.

It is so different from the city I visited in 1991, following a fundraising concert attended by Diana, Princess of Wales, in aid of the Kurdish cause. The Prime Minister at the time, John Major, sent me over to address the Kurdish Parliament. Sir John is a hero in Kurdistan for establishing no-fly zones over the country, allowing the people to walk the streets without fear of attack by Saddam Hussein’s aircraft.

That first time I travelled to Erbil, my journey into Iraq was a 17-hour trek along dusty mountain paths from the Turkish border. Our convoy consisted of a tank, an armoured truck and 160 Peshmerga (Kurdish armed forces). This time, after celebrating my 70th birthday in Grantchester, I took a plane from Heathrow to Vienna, then on to Erbil, where I was met by Jeremy Macadie, the British Consul General. We rode in a bullet-proof Toyota, at 70 miles an hour, with just three support cars and 20 Peshmerga.

I had dinner that evening with Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, the wife of Iraq’s President, Jalal Talabani. Her husband has worked all his life to build a democracy in Iraq, but even he was surprised when a Kurd was elected President of the whole nation. His main concern, and the crucial political issue for the future of Iraq, is the forthcoming selection of the Prime Minister and Speaker of Parliament. The next four weeks will be vital for the nation. If it can get through this period, President Talabani believes there will be no looking back.

The other issue of overwhelming importance to him is Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution. In simple terms, this promises to give the symbolic city of Kirkuk back to the Kurds. This was the main reason the Kurds signed up to the constitution. Four years later, their patience is wearing thin. Despite their history of fighting for an independent homeland, the enactment of this clause is a higher priority right now.

President Talabani was keen to get across to me his disappointment that, while thousands of foreigners were setting up companies all over Iraq, the British were noticeable by their absence. He wants adventurous entrepreneurs to realise there is an opportunity in Iraq that rivals the gold rush. The environment minister, another Anglophile, told me that he spent his days escorting Chinese as they sized up opportunity after opportunity. “Why do the British go to Dubai when they can come to us?” he asked.

Mind you, the President did point out that the Home Office in London was making it difficult for bona fide Iraqi businessmen to get entry visas to Britain, making two-way trade almost impossible; a problem they’re not facing in France or Germany.

Reconstruction is visible right across the country, funded by oil wealth. But the country desperately needs services and expertise to back up the new programmes. There is a serious return to be made, not just in oil and construction, but in telecoms, banking, insurance and especially agriculture, in the fertile land between the Tigris and Euphrates. If I were 30 and not 70, I would go and find out who wants what and see that they got it.

Massoud Barzani is the 64-year-old President of the Kurdistan region. This gentle man remains the fighting general of his warrior nation — loved and admired by his people for the sacrifices he made during the years of Saddam. Despite all the progress of recent years, he told me that if necessary he would leave his palace, return to the hills and fight for his cause once again. You don’t sacrifice 2,000 years of history in a decade.

The Kurds are hard-working, well- educated and ambitious. Their ambitions go far beyond physical reconstruction and the accumulation of wealth. They see their ancient citadel in Erbil, one of the oldest continually inhabited cities on Earth, as a potential rival to Petra. Already it has been listed as a Unesco historic site.

Kurdistan is now a peaceful place but we British have not woken up to the real opportunity waiting for us. Kurds speak English as a second language. They don’t speak Chinese or Russian. What are we waiting for? Kurdistan is rich in oil and in ten years’ time could expect to make a larger profit per barrel than any other nation: it aims to be in the top ten of the world’s producers. And it has gas.

Young people often say to me that there is nothing left for them to achieve. I would say, go east young man, go to Kurdistan. You could make your first million, and what’s more, you won’t be taxed at 50 per cent.

Baghdad is doing well enough not to begrudge the Kurds their economic success. And when I arrived in the city, I was pleased to see people drinking coffee in pavement cafes and children playing football in the street. However, the day after I flew back to England, suicide bombers killed dozens of militia there. So if you go east, young man or woman, you will still have to take the odd risk.