ERBIL, Kurdistan Region - By opening a consulate general in the Iraqi Kurdistan capital of Erbil, the Netherlands is acknowledging the economic potential of the Kurdistan Region, says Jeroen Kelderhuis, the head of the present Dutch embassy liaison office in Erbil.
The office Kelderhuis set up two years ago will soon be upgraded to a consulate, so the authorities in The Netherlands have decided -- while at the same time Dutch consulates elsewhere have fallen victim to cuts due to recession.
Very soon Kurdish businessmen will be able to apply for a visa for the Netherlands in Erbil, which is the main difference between the present office and the new situation.
“Establishing a consulate general means you create something permanent, on a direct diplomatic level,” answers Kelderhuis when asked about the changes.
“It suggests more independence, although its work will still have to be accorded by the embassy in Baghdad,” adds Gerard Lucius, the deputy head of the Dutch mission in Baghdad. Both stress that the main task of the consulate in Erbil will be to promote trade.
The decision to open it has followed the six-fold increase of requests for advice since 2012. “Businesses seek information, contacts inside the Kurdistan government and with potential partners, ways to get juridical advice and help to solve conflicts,” Kelderhuis explains.
According to Lucius, the growth did not only affect the office in Erbil, but also the embassy in Baghdad. “Questions about working in Iraq have doubled, as we also saw economic growth in Basra, Najaf and Kerbala.” Upgrading the Erbil office gives the embassy in Baghdad more space to focus on the rest of Iraq, he says.
With 32 firms, the Netherlands features in the top 10 of registered companies in the Kurdistan Region. Some of them have a Dutch registration because of an attractive tax environment, some are genuinely Dutch, like Philips, Heineken, Campina and car manufacturer Daf that recently set up shop in Erbil.
Kelderhuis notes that trade is important, too. “There are many containers going to and fro.” Lucius adds that not only Holland, but also Kurdistan, profits from it, as Kurds want products of a high standard.
According to Kelderhuis, Kurds who live or lived in Holland often are the link between Dutch companies and Kurdistan. He sets their number conservatively at 35,000 and calls them very committed to both countries.
This was shown during the recent opening of a monument in the Netherlands for the victims of the 1988 chemical attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja -- that was initiated by the Dutch Kurdish community. “It is the first of such monuments in Europe.”
Kelderhuis’ successor this summer will be the first Dutch consul in Iraqi Kurdistan. Other countries, most importantly the United States, Britain, Germany and France, already run consulates in the Kurdistan Region.
The visa department will provide visa for businessmen who want to visit their partners in the Netherlands, or want to do business or even invest there.
“It’s not a one way street. Iraqi companies will find an attractive environment in Holland, as it has as many as 90 tax treaties with other countries, so companies are sure not to pay tax twice,” says Gerard Lucius. He points out that the Dutch government is willing to support business operations financially, “not as a development project, but purely on the base of equality.”
The issuing of visas will start as soon as technically possible, announces Kelderhuis. An external company will be contracted to take care of the application side in Erbil, along the lines of how the British have organized their system since last year.
The difference will be that the Dutch will not provide visas in Erbil for Iraqis who want to go on holiday in the Netherlands; those people will still have to apply in Jordan or Turkey. And even though Dutch Kurds have begged for it, their passports will not get extended in Erbil either.
“We will continue helping all Dutch passport holders in trouble,” Kelderhuis says, for instance by supplying people who lose their passports with a laissez-passer document.
Solving problems will be an important task for the new consul, like those some Dutch firms encountered bringing in fresh food into Iraqi Kurdistan. Those were caused by a lack of clarity, of quality demands, and changing regulations, says Kelderhuis.
“We are happy that, after we reported them, these custom issues have been addressed by the authorities.”
The Dutch focus for their business activities in Iraq on agriculture, life sciences and healthcare, water and oil. The latter will gather importance in the near future, Kelderhuis predicts. “The Netherlands has a lot of experience in the petrochemical industry, and that is where we see many opportunities for business cooperation.”