Leanne Case, CEO of Vzir, writes about why she is on a mission to help more British companies access opportunities in Iraq.
I didn’t know what to expect when I first went to Iraq in 2009. Travelling there for the first time, via Jordan and Kuwait. Drinking in the subtle colours of the changing sands. My only reference, a BBC programme, Rock Band in Baghdad, the News, and YouTube videos of disturbing events. Some of what I found saddened, frustrated and disgusted me, but most of all, it forced me to grow up. I had always thought that Aid was about changing lives, but my opinions changed. Aid may sometimes be about sustaining lives but it’s economic independence that matters. The private sector is key.
You could accuse me of blind optimism, a romantic view that Iraq would reclaim its majestic architectural heritage and take it forward to a modern era. I remain hopeful. However, what I learnt pretty quickly was that when conflict rages and deflects resources, it’s the people that suffer and the cities they live in.
The new becomes desirable, and the architectural traditions of that city and culture feel tainted by the recent suffering. In my two years living in Baghdad, I met just one, an Iraqi expat, fighting to save a heritage area in central Baghdad, buildings about 100 years old. Despite the history, he struggled to find support. Every politician that I met during those years wanted the new, wanted Iraq to be the next Dubai. Many wanted to erect monuments to their own success.
Its not been smooth sailing, our relationship. I laugh now at my astounding naivety, but in the decade since I first arrived there, I’ve done a lot of growing up. At times I’ve felt utterly despondent, despairing with an absolute certainty that I wanted to turn my back on it all. But, for the most part, I’ve felt cautiously optimistic, and I’m going to tell you exactly why, after all of this, I am still backing Iraq.
The decade that I have spent working in Iraq has had its ups and downs, but it’s always felt worthwhile. Initially, I worked to help build relationships between ministries and energy leaders and fix problems when agreements broke down. I helped UK businesses understand the opportunity and reality of developing business in Iraq. Arranging the first British Trade mission to Baghdad in over two decades, and rushing to the Ministry of Trade to save the Trade Agreement at the eleventh hour, were career highs that went largely unnoticed by people outside embassy walls. I’ve since worked with companies large and small, and am very proud to have contributed to the implementation of international standards for many of the oil and gas projects.
I’ve often observed people struggling with the differences and complexities of doing business in Iraq. I see the importance of objectivity and combining different cultural elements in forming the right approach. That right approach is always based on access to quality information. It is vital to find the right partners. For some reason people seem to think that it makes sense to operate blindly, and then they wonder how they got burnt. In this context, being informed is more important, taking the time to build teams that understand your company standards and applying the high standards that you would in other markets.
So the million dollar question? Why am I still backing Iraq? Without a doubt Iraq is a major opportunity. We have only to look at the major players and the contracts they have signed this year alone. It is still a high-risk high reward market. The cost of getting it wrong is high, so getting it right absolutely matters.
Because I understand the complexity, because I believe in the opportunity, because I’ve seen how to get it wrong – and know how to get it right – I’m committed to helping others to succeed, circumnavigating risks and delivering value for their shareholders, employees and customers. Iraq more than ever is fertile ground for companies that are committed to building a sustainable future. That’s why I founded Vzir.
I have been featured on Grow Through International Expansion Podcast recently. Click here to listen my conversation with Oliver Dowson
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: In 2009, Leanne Case was selected by Prime Minister Gordon Brown to conduct a study into the opportunity for British business in Iraq. She spent eight months re-establishing the DIT (Department of International Trade) office in Baghdad and has for the last decade, been a trusted advisor to companies in the Middle East, Asia and Europe.