No Brits in Basra

British businesses are nowhere to be seen in Iraq, unlike the companies of those countries that opposed the war

The Iraqi port official turned to me as we swept past a gleaming new office building bearing the legend CMA CGM, the French container shipping company. “Your country has spilled a lot of blood here. You should be getting the business now. Iraqis want to see more British companies in Basra, the economic engine of Iraq, but they’re not coming. We don’t know why.” 

For a Brit, it is particularly galling to see a French company setting up shop in what was, until recently, a uniquely British part of Iraq. Perhaps this is what happens when a country, not to mention UK plc, loses its nerve. The spin our previous, unlamented government put on Britain’s departure from Iraq in 2009 masked a painful and fundamental truth. Having failed in Basra, the British were not consulted by Prime Minister Maliki when he led the Charge of the Knights operation to rid the city of Muqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi militia in the spring of 2008. 

Once that happened, Britain started to look like an unhelpful guest who had overstayed his welcome. Or as the old Arabic expression has it: “A guest is like a fish. After three days he stinks.” Baghdad and London subsequently failed to agree a new bilateral security pact, as scathing a commentary on what we had achieved in Iraq as you could find, and so it was that British forces handed over not to their Iraqi counterparts, but to their American cousins. Job not done.

Today, Basrawis like the port official in Um Qasr wonder what has happened to the British. BP and Shell are there, of course, but then so is almost every other oil giant, including China National Petroleum Corporation. Beijing was once one of the most outspoken critics of the Iraq war. It has now morphed, seamlessly, into one of its biggest economic beneficiaries. British security companies, including the one I have advised for the past six years, have also punched above their weight in Iraq, but remove oil and security and the cupboard looks very bare indeed. Britain has a fine record in construction but its companies are nowhere to be seen. Turkey dominates the field instead. As for marine salvage, another thriving business profiting from Iraq’s under-dredged waterways, it is not the Brits but the gutsy Turkish shipping magnate Kahraman Sadikoglu, kidnapped in December 2005, who leads the way. Where are the British entrepreneurs?

“In the 19th century, the East India Company would have been all over Basra starting all sorts of businesses and making masses of money,” says a retired British army officer. “With a recession in the UK and all these wonderful opportunities in Iraq for British companies to take advantage of, it’s staggering that Britain has been so feeble. Why, for instance, are BA and Tesco not here?”

Some say British companies are concerned about the association with what was a hugely controversial war. Equally likely, our businesses are becoming less bold and more risk-averse, petrified into inaction by a crippling health and safety culture. “You have missed it,” says a Basrawi MP. “It is such a shame. Relations between Iraq and the UK are fantastic but British business has been very slow to seize the opportunities, unlike the Americans, who live for business.”

During my 10-day visit to Basra in June, I drove all over the city, to Um Qasr port and Khor az-Zubayr. I dined in local restaurants, took a boat out onto the water and swam in the Shatt al-Arab, eyeing swathes of land, studded with palm trees, that Ahmed Chalabi has reportedly been buying up with a view to development. I couldn’t help thinking as I splashed around: Basra is booming, but where are the Brits?

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"