The long drive from Kuwait City to the Iraqi border was, to put it mildly, nerve-wracking. Sleep deprivation from an overnight flight full of wailing children did nothing to help me put thoughts of kidnapping out of my head. Rather like queuing for a roller coaster, the glacial pace of the checks and visa scrutiny at the border only increased the tension.
But once in convoy speeding towards Basra Sports City, the dusty wind whipping through the windows, I almost breathed a sigh of relief. The roads were dotted with military checkpoints and even the occasional tank, but from the – admittedly very limited – picture I built up over three days, this did not feel like a country on a knife edge. Poor, yes, and with plenty of armed police, but not somewhere ready to explode on sight of a Westerner.
This is just the question dozens of construction firms will be asking themselves over the next five or so years: just how scary is Iraq? The Foreign Office advice paints a rather frightening picture. “We advise against all travel to Baghdad and its surrounding area, and to the provinces of Basra, Maysan, Al Anbar, Salah Ad Din, Diyala, Wasit, Babil, Ninawa and At-Tamim [Kirkurk],” it says.
“There is a high threat of terrorism throughout Iraq… methods of attack include shootings, bombings, suicide bombs, vehicle bombs, rockets and mortars… Large numbers of people, including British nationals, have been kidnapped in Iraq, of which a number resulted in the death of hostages.”
Given the number of incidents that have occurred over the past eight years, you can see why it would want us to steer clear.
But other arms of government are more sanguine. UK Trade & Investment, although it refers companies to FCO advice, has no hesitation in urging companies to get over there. “The overall security situation in Iraq has improved…
Many British companies are already doing good business in Iraq and we want to see more follow their example. UK Trade & Investment (UKTI) recently expanded its presence in both Baghdad and Erbil.”
There are several British construction companies working in Iraq, and their employees aren’t getting shot or kidnapped on a daily basis.
But companies that choose to go there will have to consider not just the danger employees are in, but the daily stress their families will suffer back in the UK.
To go or not to go is not a decision Building can make for a company – but we can point out that there is more advice coming out of the government than just the Foreign Office.