Visit of Mr. Edward of the Sunday Telegraph Newspaper - 16 April 2019

Liam Fox calls on British firms to help rebuild Iraq to honour the war dead

20 APRIL 2019 • 6:00PM

It isn't the first place in the world one might expect to encounter brand new Jaguars on display in an ultra-modern showroom.

But in the Mansour district of Baghdad, some three miles from the site of some of the deadliest insurgent attacks of the Iraq war, stands one of three Jaguar Land Rover showrooms now dotted around the city. A Union Jack flies alongside an Iraqi flag outside the building, in more than a nod to the British roots of the firm. An armed guard studies the flow of traffic and occasional pedestrians passing its large glass windows.
Sardar Trading Agencies, the Iraqi company that runs the showrooms, is bidding for some of the £2 billion pot the British Government is now offering to help support British loans operating in the country through UK Export Finance, the export credit agency.

In an interview with The Telegraph on a visit to Baghdad, Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary, said his conversations with the country's leaders showed that the government feels "it is turning a corner". A relative improvement in security has seen the Iraqi government begin to open up the city's Green Zone, 15 years after it was cordoned off by the American military to protect it from bombings during the war. Violent deaths are at a 15 year low, and British officials see a "window of opportunity".

Continuing nervousness about the security of Baghdad is clear from the stationing of heavily armoured police and military vehicles around the city, mounted with guns. And officials fear that the defeat of Islamic State's "caliphate" could foreshadow a return to guerrilla terror attacks in areas such as Baghdad.

But large, bustling parts of the city, not least Mansour, with its street vendors and plethora of shops, could, to a visitor, be neighbourhoods in any vibrant Middle East capital.

Now, Dr Fox says, the Iraqi government believe that they are in a position "to attract more investment ... to rebuild their economy [and become] less dependent on importing things from Turkey and Iran." Simon Penney, the UK's trade commissioner for the Middle East, adds that the "green shoots" of the economy are starting to return. He and Dr Fox want Britain to use its political influence to work with other Arab states on projects in the country.

Currently, almost half of Iraqi government revenue is spent on wages for its workforce. Much of its revenue derives from oil, and the British Government sees an opportunity to help increase the growth of private enterprise.

Dr Fox believes the UK has a duty to help rebuild Iraq as part of what he describes as the "next phase" of "improving the way of life" of Iraqis after Tony Blair led the 2003 invasion to topple Saddam Hussein".

"Clearly there are difficulties ahead, but I also think there are grounds for optimism and, given the sacrifices that people in Britain, particularly in the armed forces, made, it would be something of a dereliction of duty for us not to see through the next phase of improving the standard of living and the way of life of the people here."

Dr Fox, who last visited Iraq in 2008 as shadow defence secretary, insists that trade and investment "is not just about economics". "If you can provide those elements that give people jobs, greater access to prosperity, you're likely to get greater political support for the government and it's able to stabilise the country in a region that has been so unstable for so long."

The Jaguar Land Rover showrooms were opened in 2015, just a year after Isil militants briefly took over parts of a city just 37 miles from Baghdad.

"We started in tough days, and continued in tough days," says Sardar Al-Bebany, 51, the chairman of Sardar Trading Agencies, describing several highly challenging years for his business, which includes showrooms opened in Kurdistan in 2010.

"But I believe the brand of Jaguar Land Rover and the British flag flying outside will help show that safe times are back in Iraq." In recent months the firm has seen an upturn in sales. Already this month it has sold 40 of its vehicles, the cost of which range around £15,000 to £76,000.

Liam Fox with Iraqi born British businessman Saad Naji who owns the Babylon Mall. Pictured on the right is the JLR showroom

Even now, there remains a threat of terror attacks and kidnap, and the Foreign Office advises that British nationals travelling to the country seek the protection of private security companies.

The main road from the airport, some ten minutes drive from the Mansour showroom, was known as "death road" at the height of the war. It became a hotspot for suicide bombers and gunmen lying in wait for coalition troops travelling from the airport to the Green Zone - formerly home to Saddam Hussein's presidential compound.

But while British and American officials are still driven around the country in armoured cars, the majority of the 2,000 Jaguars and Land Rovers sold to Iraqis are comparable to those sold in the UK.

Across the city, in the compound of their Iraqi business partners, Taha, is the Baghdad office of Optima, a British firm clearing improvised explosive devices (IED) in areas such as Mosul, to which Iraqis have been returning since the army reclaimed the city from Isil in 2017.