BARCELONA, Spain – While many European countries have made inroads into Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Region to reap the benefits of an economic boom, Spain has failed to follow suit and officials have declined invitations to visit the area.
“We have invited several politicians to visit Kurdistan but they have canceled the visits; Spain thinks only of South America and does not have enough information about the Middle East,” complained Daban Shadala, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) representative in Madrid.
Agreeing with Shadala that Spain – which is in the throes of an economic crisis and needs all the trade it can get – should do more, the head of the Spanish-Iraqi Chamber of Commerce in Madrid told Rudaw that countries like Italy, England, Germany and France have penetrated deeper into the Iraqi and Kurdish markets.
“Businessmen from these countries are more aggressive in terms of doing business, and as soon as they receive the okay from their embassies (in Iraq) they go ahead and get into the market,” said Amanch Yajatum, the chamber’s president, who holds dual Spanish and Iraqi citizenship.
We have invited several politicians to visit Kurdistan but they have canceled the visits; Spain thinks only of South America and does not have enough information about the Middle East,
“Also, their foreign policy helps them and ministers from Germany and France have visited the country several times to support projects,” he said.
Yajatum said that large Spanish companies have been so used to their traditional markets in Africa and Latin America that they have not bothered to seek out new commercial venues. “They feel more comfortable there, and regarding Kurdistan and Iraq they demand to have everything ready for them before traveling there,” he said.
“The Spanish embassy in Baghdad should be more active in facilitating commercial dealings between Spain and Iraq. It has been very difficult for Spanish companies to invite their counterparts because the Spanish embassy has not been proactive in facilitating visit visas,” said Yajatum, who hopes that a newly-appointed ambassador in Baghdad will help improve things.
Spanish banks are also too slow to act on business leads, Yajatum complained.
“In other countries like Italy businessmen have the endorsement from the bank in five days, while in Spain it takes between 20 days and one month. That's why Spanish companies lose many tenders,” he said, explaining that Iraqi law stipulates a ban endorsement within 20 days of submitting a tender.
In contrast, Italy KRG representative Rezan Kader told Rudaw that commercial ties between Italy and Kurdistan are “one of the best in Europe”.
“We have relations with the commercial chambers of different Italian regions, and recently 46 Italian companies visited Kurdistan to participate in a fair,” she said.
The few Spanish companies that are operating in Kurdistan report good business and better prospects.
“I find Iraqi Kurdistan a secure place for investment and in my experience locals there are open for serious business with serious foreigners,” said David Nkedive, export manager of the Spanish company Arte Osaka, which makes decorative paints and wall coverings.
We have been the best in professionalism and pricing and I don't understand why they have not been awarded yet.
Nkedive visited Kurdistan last October to take part in the Project Iraq fair in Erbil, together with 17 other Spanish companies.
Because of a football craze in Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq – and plenty of fans of Spanish soccer among the Kurds – Spain enjoys an advantage and sympathy that it could put to better use to push commercial ties, say officials on both sides.
Nevertheless, large Spanish companies are not wholly absent from Kurdistan.
Madrid-based Indra has been awarded a contract to digitize identity cards in all of Iraq, including Kurdistan, in a deal recommended by the Americans. Spanish energy giant Repsol is also operating in Kurdistan since 2011, but with a small contract, said Yajatum.
“Repsol is in Kurdistan with a small contract. It is true that Baghdad has threatened to boycott oil and gas companies doing business directly with Kurdistan, but this is not an excuse for Spanish companies, since the solution can be put in a final agreement,” he explained.
Also, several small companies from the autonomous Spanish region of Catalonia are taking part in infrastructure projects in Kurdistan, such as roads and housing.
In addition, Yajatum is expecting the Spanish company Globesalud to be awarded the management contract for a 400-bed hospital in Sulaimani and another with 200 beds in Zakho.
“We have been the best in professionalism and pricing and I don't understand why they have not been awarded yet. It will not be right if Globesalud does not win the tender,” added Yajatum.
We are trying to motivate companies in Spain and make clear that Kurdistan is not Iraq, but a gate to Iraq,
Despite the low key commercial dealings between Spain and Kurdistan, officials on both sides are optimistic for the future.
“The interest from the Spanish government and private sector entities is most certainly growing on a daily basis. It was a struggle to get this far seeing that Spain and Kurdistan do not have a long history together,” said Shadala, the KRG representative in Madrid.
“We are trying to motivate companies in Spain and make clear that Kurdistan is not Iraq, but a gate to Iraq,” he stressed.
“The Spanish Government still has not opened a full diplomatic representation in the Kurdistan Region, despite our push for them to do so, but we believe it is only a matter of time,” said Shadala, noting that Spain only has an honorary consul in Erbil.
Despite all the hurdles, Shadala has managed to provide his fellow Kurds perhaps what they most want from Spain: Its football.
Through his endeavors, Halabja FC recently agreed to a verbal agreement for coaching from the Athletic FC in Bilbao. In addition, Real Madrid signed a contract to build facilities and select trainers in Kurdistan, based on the Spanish club’s standards.