MODERATOR: Greetings to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s London International Media Hub. I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from Iraq and around the world for this on-the-record briefing with Special Representative for Commercial and Business Affairs Dilawar Syed. Special Representative Syed will discuss the historic U.S.-Iraq Business Council delegation visit to Iraq and U.S. commercial engagement with the Middle East.
We are pleased to offer this briefing with simultaneous interpretation in Arabic. We therefore ask everyone to keep this in mind and speak slowly. We will have some opening remarks from our speaker, and then he will take questions from participating journalists.
I will now turn it over to Special Representative Syed for his opening remarks. Sir, the floor is yours.
MR SYED: Thank you so much. And thank you, everybody, for joining us this afternoon. And I appreciate the opportunity to be able to share the visit that we had in Iraq, a very productive visit to Baghdad last week.
So we had 47 companies that were a part of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce delegation that I led to Baghdad. It’s for the first time in more than five years that such a commercial delegation has gone to Iraq, and we spent three days in Baghdad, meeting with the country’s prime minister, the speaker, top political leadership, many leading businessmen and women of Iraq, parliamentarians who represent the entire political spectrum of Iraq, as well as, my favorite part, small business owners and entrepreneurs, many of whom are being supported by USAID as well; and also had the opportunity to speak to many of your colleagues, journalist colleagues, from Iraq as well.
A couple of things to keep in mind. This is – this was a deliberate effort for us to build on the engagement that the Secretary had, Secretary Blinken had, with Foreign Minister Hussein back in February, which is – when we talked about broadening our relationship as part of a broader Strategic Framework Agreement between United States and the Government of Iraq, and a big piece of that is to recenter our relationships on business, on economic management, and on building commercial partnership between the two countries. And as part of the follow-up from the conversation just this February, we took this delegation that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce organized, and we are very, very grateful for their partnership, as they have done so in many parts of world with us at the State Department.
We also should mention here that this visit actually coincided with the passage of the most historic and largest federal budget that Iraq has passed, the Government of Iraq, the federal Government of Iraq has passed ever, $150 billion worth of outlays for the next three years, which obviously they cover the entire socioeconomic program for the people of Iraq, but there’s a significant portion also for capital expenditures put aside. And that actually literally happened the morning – very early morning hours – of the day we met with the prime minister, so there were a lot of weary eyes, but very, very high spirits, given such a historic passage.
And those of you who’ve been passing – who’ve been tracking the Iraqi political landscape, this is a big deal and a milestone, given that this government has come in formation recently. It represents the breadth of Iraqi society, its various regions, its various stakeholders. So it’s wonderful to see the central government coming together and passing such historic investments for the future of Iraq. And we’re just very excited, as U.S. private sector, to be able to help partner and rebuild Iraq, given that there is now resources that are coming online.
Let me also add a couple more things here. The delegation comprised of diverse – of a very diverse set of companies. Health care actually was one of the largest segments of businesses that were represented in this delegation. Alongside we had renewable energy. There’s a big concern we’ve had about capturing flared gas. It is hurting the people of Iraq in the south of the country; also it is a major climate issue. And as you know, President Biden is very focused on, both at home and abroad, helping address global warming, so we are – we were very glad that there were companies who are actually specialists in capturing flared gas. I should also mention here that that also helps us help Iraq use an alternative means for their local consumption of this gas, which they actually, believe it or not, import from their neighbors.
So we had health care; we had energy; we had technology companies, finance. Iraq needs a serious development when it comes to its financial services sectors. It is not formalized. That is essential for the modern economy to take hold. And we had construction and other – education as well, and other sectors. So truly a broad and diverse companies from the United States that were part of the delegation.
And finally, let me say this. This was my first time in Baghdad as an official and I can see a city on its path to progress, just when you look at the number of construction sites, the actual humming and buzzing of a large metropolis. But perhaps more importantly, we can see a growing stability in the country, a growing peace in the country. The people of Iraq have suffered so much over this past decade, so it’s wonderful to see this moment emerging in Iraq where we as partners can go in, especially as private sector, which is our biggest force for good, our most critical force for good to be able to move societies forward. So we hope we can partner in the coming years and help Iraq with rebuilding, modernize its economy, and making sure that we help the people of Iraq tackle some of their biggest challenges and opportunities that are in their way.
With that, I will take – I will take any further questions.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Special Representative Syed. Our first question is a pre-submitted question and it comes from Aya Sayed of Roayah News in Egypt. Aya asks, “What measures are you taking to strengthen the U.S.-Iraq economic relationship and encourage U.S. companies to invest in Iraq?”
MR SYED: So I thank you for the question. What I just shared is really answering your question. This very deliberate visit of a large delegation of U.S. companies that I accompanied and then we met with the top leadership is precisely what we do to help facilitate the U.S. companies’ future investments in the country. And then of course our ambassador is extremely active, energetic, about strengthening and building this relationship. Our U.S. embassy – the office that I head up are – that supports the commercial section of the U.S. embassy is some – is one that we will also be deploying as we look to execute some of the opportunities.
In fact, I should mention that on the sidelines of this event, of this delegation, we already saw some of the results emerging. Merck Global signed a cooperation agreement with the Government of Iraq’s health ministry to do research on cancer and also overall cancer care treatment in Iraq.
So of course we will provide our commercial resources that the State Department offers as well as our Foreign Commercial Service, who is not currently operating in Iraq but it is coming through a partner program via the office that I head up. So all resources are on the table, and first to facilitate our companies’ business in Iraq going forward.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Charbel Barakat from Aljarida newspaper in Kuwait, and Charbel asks, “Is the United States able to secure a significant role within the ambit of the Development Road project recently initiated by the Iraqi Government? And furthermore, does this venture hold the potential to evolve into competition between the United States and China?”
MR SYED: So look, I mean, as I mentioned earlier, there is – it’s wonderful to see that there is a budget, there’s an outlay; the Government of Iraq has put out resources to invest in its future. And with that channel open, we clearly have the opportunity for our companies to go and compete for projects as they are – as those bids come out. We really encourage our Iraqi leadership, our friends, to make sure there is transparency, there is openness. It is very critical that we fight corruption in the country, and every single dollar that is being put out for the future of the people of Iraq is diverted towards that, and we will make sure that we are supportive of that as partners as well.
So again, whatever initiatives the government is launching, we certainly and look forward to participating in those in an open, transparent, and standards-based way. That’s our model of our operation, if you will, when we conduct business globally.
Now, with respect to competition, look, we compete with our competitors around the world. We compete sometimes with our best friends around the world. Our private sector, we believe, is – offers the best value, best parts and services than anyone else in the world. So we will – that’s what we will do in Iraq just like we do everywhere else in the world.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question goes to Omar Abdo from Roayah News in Egypt. Omar asks, “Has Iraq become eligible to receive foreign investments? And has Iraq received investments from the United States in particular?”
MR SYED: So we’re – as I was mentioning earlier, there is growing stability in the country. There is growing political stability in the country. There is growing peace in the country. And we are – we believe the environment is conducive for U.S. companies and U.S. entrepreneurs, U.S. innovators to enter the market and grow their business and grow their operations. And that’s why we took this trip there. In fact, after spending three to four days in Baghdad, a number of our folks also went to Erbil for an agriculture-focused delegation, and as you know, that is a strength of the region.
So we are very – we are very bullish about the future of Iraq. We really appreciate the moment the country is going through. It’s a positive and it’s, frankly, very heartwarming to see the country on the move. And we certainly hope that we can execute on some of these business opportunities that we explored during this visit.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Special Representative Syed. Our next question goes to Wladimir van Wilgenburg from Kurdistan 24. “Did you also visit the Kurdistan region during your trip, and did you visit Erbil? Overall, what was the goal of your trip?”
MR SYED: So I would have loved to go to Erbil. I unfortunately had to come back early. My colleagues did go forward with their trip to Erbil and I certainly hope to do that and go and visit the Kurdistan region going forward. I did meet with some of the stakeholders from Kurdistan – AmCham Kurdistan – in Baghdad and really had productive conversations with those colleagues.
Overall, again, the trip – the goal of the trip was, as I mentioned earlier, was to really build and deepen our commercial engagement with Iraq and the people of Iraq. I’m an entrepreneur. Before I joined the Biden administration I had known firsthand that really our businesses, our private sector is one of our most important assets of the country, and we want to deploy those technologies, those parts and services, in this country at this moment when it’s seeking to rebuild itself given this moment that it has found when it comes to growing stability.
I should also mention that every time that U.S. companies take hold in a region, in a country, they help raise standards because we like to operate in an open environment. There’s a whole breadth of business environment challenges that Iraq has. We spent some time with the Government of Iraq and various ministries; I personally spoke with many parliamentarians about making sure there’s an IP framework – intellectual property framework – and make sure there is proper arbitration of agreements. And we’re very happy that the Government of Iraq recently acceded to the New York framework for arbitration. We discussed at length about the ability to repatriate profits as earnings from – with our discussions with the central bank of Iraq. So all those business environment, investment climate challenges are ones we are also addressing as we are looking to deepen our commercial relationship.
Of course that will help the U.S. companies be more productive in the country. It will also help Iraq develop its business climate and its environment for its own innovators, for its own entrepreneurs, who we certainly hope will emerge and help the country tackle many of its – many of its challenges.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We have time for one more question, and it is: “Following this historic visit to Iraq, what do you see as coming next and how do you plan to build on this visit?”
MR SYED: Well, the ultimate outcome is – and the results are about closing these deals. That’s how we measure success. We do know it takes time, but I was very, very happy that we had not only leaders, we had operating leaders from these companies literally scoping projects with various ministries in the Government of Iraq, with various businesspeople. You also just spend time on the ground. I think for us to go back in the country and spend a few days and meet with various stakeholders and go around the city hopefully builds confidence for folks to – who want to invest in the country (inaudible) the word that it’s safe and it’s conducive. There will need to be sustained engagement.
We, as the State Department and our other interagency colleagues, are prepared to support that engagement. Our ambassador is very, very focused on it. So we want to be able to close these deals. We want to make sure that these flared gas capturing projects can go forward and we can help Iraq recapture that gas so it doesn’t have to pay four to five billion dollars of its foreign exchange every year for gas that it’s actually, unfortunately, losing to atmosphere.
And by the way, it is worth four to five billion dollars. So they literally could – the Iraqi leadership told us they would literally save that money by just capturing the flared gas. And of course the positive impact on the environment we all know is tremendous for these children of Iraq.
So again, we want to close those deals, we want to close those projects. Education is another area that we feel very strongly about. I feel very strongly about making sure that Iraq has future tech talent. The country is producing only a few thousand software developers and data scientists. This is a country with incredible civilization and history, and you want to support the emergence of the STEM talent coming out of Iraq.
So again, we need to make sure that these deals progress. Companies will need to spend time there, sustain these relationships that we’re building. We, again, appreciate the partnerships of U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who will remain a major partner in ensuring that we move forward. And we will support from the federal Government of the United States everything we can when it comes to our companies conducting business in Iraq going forward.
MODERATOR: And that concludes today’s call. I would like to thank Special Representative Syed for joining us, and I would like to thank all of our journalists for participating. If you have any questions about today’s call, you may contact the London International Media Hub at MediaHubLondon@state.gov.
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