UK firms should invest more in Iraq, says Tony Blair

 

Tony Blair today urged British companies to step up their investment in Iraq and take advantage of the “enormous opportunity” presented by the country's reconstruction efforts.

The former prime minister, whose highly controversial decision to topple Saddam Hussein came to dominate his tenure in Number 10, said Iraq was set to become one of the fastest-growing economies in the world over the next decade.

Foreign investment was essential to rebuilding the country while Iraq's own private sector was still recovering from the state ownership and centralism of the Baathist era, but a "basic problem in terms of perception" was holding back UK firms, he said.

"British business is already invested in Iraq, but there is so much more it can do," he said in a speech to a conference of the Iraq Britain Business Council (IBBQ) in Westminster.

Mr Blair said Basra, where the majority of UK forces were based in the years after the 2003 invasion, was especially suitable for British involvement.

"The truth is that Basra has got this enormous programme of investment that is now going forward and one of the reasons for the conference today is to get the message out to British business that this is an enormous opportunity, that we have got very strong links with Basra and we should be there," he said.

Mr Blair, who still faces strong criticism of his involvement in Iraq and the years of bloodshed which followed the invasion, said today that Saddam's "campaigns against his own people" were "often overlooked" and pointed out that industries like agriculture and tourism declined "dramatically" under his regime.

"Now at least there is the possibility to rebuild," he said.

Mr Blair, who now works as a peace envoy in the Middle East as well as providing lucrative consultancy services to international companies, acknowledged that the difficulties facing Iraq were "manifest", including terrorism, corruption, lack of infrastructure and political paralysis.

But he insisted there had also been progress. "It is important not to exaggerate it; equally important not to ignore it.

"The economy of 2012 in Iraq is several times the size of ten years ago. Growth this year will be 9% and Iraq is set to be one of the fastest growing economies in the world over the next decade.

"A Government worker is paid now, on average around four times what he was ten years ago in real terms. Oil revenue now stands at 100 billion dollars per annum and is set to treble by 2020. Last month Iraq surpassed Iran as exporter of oil. Iraq's Central Bank now has the biggest reserves in its history."

The country had "ambitious plans" for healthcare and the northern part of Iraq - where security is stronger and politics more functional - was enjoying an "unprecedented boom".

But, with Iraq's private sector crushed by the Baathist regime, foreign input was essential to help the country grow, he said.

"When, as in the case of Iraq, a nation has been a failed state, the basic intellectual and business capital of the country gets destroyed. It takes time to replenish it. The private sector itself will take years to build its capability," he said.

"Foreign investment in these years is a vital component of accelerating that process, not only for the money it brings, but for the management skills, the work discipline, and the basic ability to improve output."

He urged people to "see the possibility of Iraq as an economic powerhouse, as it should be, as a cultural icon, as an intellectual and artistic centre, which once it was".

"Keeping the vision of how it achieves that again is what all Iraqis and friends of Iraq should have at the front of their minds and hearts," he said.

PA

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