Top executives from the lawyer Eversheds, engineer Foster Wheeler and BT will embark tomorrow on the biggest British trade mission to Iraq for decade.
The Government-backed UK Trade & Investment wants to boost trade with the oil-rich nation, as UK companies failed to win many lucrative contracts in Iraq even after its heavy involvement in deposing Saddam Hussein.
Experts estimate that Iraq needs $1trillion (£620bn) of investment to make the most of its potential, which includes the fifth-biggest oil reserves in the world and huge gas fields ripe for exploration.
Baroness Nicholson, the executive chairwoman at the Iraq Britain Business Council, told The Independent: “The question is: why hasn’t there been a bigger trade mission before this one? Britain is behind in the game and we have small and medium-sized businesses who should be winning the sub-contracts that the big boys offer.”
Nearly 70 executives and university leaders are taking part in the mission. British tertiary education is thought to hold major appeal for Iraqi students, particularly in the relatively stable semi-autonomous northern region of Kurdistan, so Oxford, Exeter, Liverpool and Bath are among the big universities that are represented on the six-day tour of Iraq.
Lady Nicholson said that around three quarters of those on the trade mission had not previously visited Iraq, pointing out that the UK has been “laggardly” in the Middle East as a whole. She added that the strong attendance meant that British groups finally realised that Iraq “welcomes” their investment, with her previous biggest delegation having only comprised 37 people.
“We talk up the triumphs of our big businesses of which we’re all so proud,” said Lady Nicholson, referring to the likes of oil and gas giants BP and Royal Dutch Shell. “The small parts of business used to win high amounts of work overseas. Now we’re absent without leave.
“Our European neighbours – France, Germany and Italy – are ahead in terms of investment in Iraq. China, South Korea and the US are also huge players. Britain is now playing catch-up.”
The week will start with a conference organised by the Iraq National Investment Commission, which will be opened by the deputy prime minister, Rowsch Shaways. The delegation will later head to Erbil in Kurdistan, where it will be shown oil and gas fields and industrial centres.
Other companies visiting Iraq include the software house Copperchase and the Dorset-based oil and gas industry sub-contractor Penspen, which is headquartered in Surrey.
The UK’s ambassador to Iraq, Simon Collis, said: “Significant levels of business are already being done here, including by British companies who are well placed to succeed in a country with such historic affinity with the UK and where ‘British’ remains a byword for quality.”
The delegation leaves as a group of MPs return from Argentina, having also looked to have improved Britain’s trade links with a faraway nation. Argentina is trying to push the Government to the negotiating table over oil exploration off the Falkland Islands, which politicians in Buenos Aires claim is illegal.