From Banner to Baghdad
A medical firm in Clare is just one of a growing number forging trade links with Iraq, writes John Reynolds
IRAQ is hot, dusty, war-worn, and one of the most dangerous countries in the world, but it also earns €5bn a month from its oil wealth and Irish companies are slowly increasing exports to the country, seeking new business opportunities there and helping to improve the battle-battered country's oil production and re-equip its hospitals.
Exports to the country were worth about €47m last year, but there is plenty of scope to increase that figure, according to the Joint Arab Irish Chamber of Commerce (JAICC), which helps Irish businesses develop links and find markets in the Middle East.
In 1988 exports to Iraq, boosted particularly by Larry Goodman's beef business, peaked at a value of about IR£800m a year.
A few years later, a hospital in Baghdad run by Aer Lingus subsidiary Parc Aviation where 300 Irish staff helped to train their Iraqi colleagues was bombed during the first Gulf War, but our legacy of learning remained.
Similar new links would be welcome, according to Dr Riyad Abdelamir, director of health in Basra, a city in the oil-producing south which is home to about two million people. "I'd be very interested in working with any Irish partners to improve the communication, management and leadership skills of my medical staff," he told the Sunday Independent.
While Pfizer and Wyeth's Irish operations export medicines and baby milk powder here, smaller companies such as Clare-based gel wound dressing maker DMC Medical and Sisk Group subsidiary Eschmann, which makes hospital operating tables, have also found success.
"You need to be in for the long haul," says Bryan Wixted, MD of Shannon-based DMC Medical. Its wound dressing was invented by a UK-based Iraqi, giving the advantage of having someone on the ground who knows the ropes and who has helped it win sales to both private and public hospitals there.
"Getting our product approved by Iraq's medical regulator, even though we have EU and US approvals took nine months, but it was definitely worth it. Ideally you need good contacts and someone on the ground. There's a demand for medical products and our annual sales should exceed €1m. We're now looking at Jordan, Syria and Egypt," says Wixted.
Pepsi concentrate and Irish potato seeds are also imported from Ireland, while the Irish Dairy Board is looking at ways of increasing its sales in the entire Middle East region. Glanbia, which exports dairy ingredients here, increasingly views Iraq as an important market.
Irish builders have also sought reconstruction work here but so far none has made their mark.
Nama client developer Sean Mulryan previously tendered to build 25,000 houses in Basra, while Dublin architect Frank Ennis reportedly tendered to build a medical city and a 5,000-house development last year, but none of these projects has advanced since then.
"There's great potential in Iraq, but everyone is understandably concerned about the security situation," says JAICC chairman Louis Maguire.
Cork-based engineer Tom Lynch discovered the dangers of working here in 1990. Suspecting he was a spy, Saddam Hussein's forces threw him in prison for three months. Fortunately Iraq's High Court in Mosul found him not guilty. Undeterred, he later returned to Basra in 2004 as a consultant on rebuilding Iraq's power sector.
John Teeling's Petrel Resources has been active since 1999 and employs 200 people here. It hopes to bring several oilfields up for grabs in the latest round into production.
"This is the first time smaller companies have been able to bid, so it'll be interesting to see what happens," says managing director David Horgan, who has had "a few close calls," security-wise, but "was always able to talk my way out".
Hugh O'Donnell's Kentz Group, which designs and builds oil-processing facilities, is active near Basra, having formed a joint venture with local partner Dome Group. They have two services contracts with Russia's Lukoil, and will seek a further piece of the $200bn pie that the likes of BP, Shell and their Chinese counterparts look to slice up.
Dublin firm Santos Engineering also has its eye on business opportunities here, having supervised the construction of various motorways and Basra airport in the late Eighties. Managing director Des McMahon hopes to get work in Kurdistan in northern Iraq as a subcontractor to the likes of GE, Siemens or Lafarge -- which typically provide security for sub-contractors, and for whom his 65 staff have previously worked on cement plant and power station construction projects.
"Kurdistan is much more business-like. Elsewhere in Iraq I've heard of companies having to keep surplus staff on their payrolls. Also, until recently most business was done in cash, so that sometimes meant carrying tens of thousands of dollars with you, which wasn't ideal," he says.
If more Irish businesses can find ways to increase their trade with countries like Iraq, hopefully they'll earn many more of those much-needed dollars in the years to come.
John Reynolds' visit as part of a journalistic and film-making trip was supported by Save The Children (savethechildren.org), who provided accommodation, security, translators and transport in Iraq
Sunday Indo Business