Following an initial meeting in Amsterdam in late 2016 we received an invitation in July from an Iraqi Oil company to visit Baghdad and discuss in more detail how OPC could assist them. As I had only just returned from a trip to the Middle East, and had been travelling a lot, I asked all qualified staff to form a queue if they wanted to go to Iraq. Unfortunately the queue never formed! As all leaders need to do from time to time, I took it on the chin and booked myself onto the flight to Baghdad for the second week in August.
Here is a snapshot of my visit which hopefully will encourage others to investigate business opportunities in Iraq.
Flying into Baghdad
I travelled overnight from London to Baghdad via Istanbul arriving at 06:00 on the Monday. Other than a 3 hour layover in Istanbul, and virtually no sleep, it was a relatively painless trip.
Visa Entry – get into the right queue
With the correct paperwork which is a paper/printed visa request supplied by the Ministry of Oil in my case, or any other Iraqi legal entity), a visa is issued on arrival. No photograph is needed, but US$82 (in cash, obviously) is to pay for it, and of course your passport. There is a special queue/office for the visa application, separate to the passport check queue. The visa is required first before the passport is stamped. I found this out having queued for the passport control, only then to be redirected to the visa office queue…….
Get picked up at Baghdad International Airport
The airport and the surrounding few miles has very high security to stop anyone shooting at planes landing and taking off (which is encouraging!!) However – that means the arrivals area is deserted apart from those authorised to meet visitors – so make sure you arrange this with your host in advance.
Get a lower level room in Baghdad hotel if you can
My hosts picked me up and drove me to the Babylon Hotel. This is a large very secure hotel with prison-like security. Steel gates that only open when the one behind is closed, sniffer dogs check for explosives, there is an engine check of a car and total car search, (which seems to be fairly standard everywhere) and then a personal search and airport security scanners of bags and person to get into hotel entrance. No guns are allowed in the hotel, other than those with the security staff. Since I didn’t have a gun, the security was relatively straightforward. However, I was advised NOT to talk to anyone about my travel plans while at the hotel (didn’t talk to anyone except the waiters!) so no attack can be planned on you personally after leaving the hotel. Once inside the hotel, it is extremely pleasant and the same as any other luxury hotel other than the electricity cutting out every now and then. A lower floor hotel room therefore minimises the use of the lifts which get stuck when the electricity cuts out- only temporarily though!
Business meetings are thorough – be prepared
I had a couple of hours sleep before being picked up and meeting the oil company at the Oil Cultural Centre. I met with around 20 of the oil company staff and made my presentation about the capabilities of OPC (if you’re interested in subsurface consultancy then check out our website!) Then we had lunch, which in true middle eastern tradition was plentiful food-wise. Interestingly, there is Pepsi, but no Coke! As in the film “The Art of Lying” “Pepsi, for when there is no Coke” applies here! After lunch it was a question and answer session as to how OPC would go about increasing production from their oil field. The electricity cut out every now and then necessitating the restarting of everything except my laptop! It was a bit like other experiences I’ve had in the region in that you really need to have clear examples of how you have solved similar problems in the past. You are a westerner and need to demonstrate that you understand the circumstances they have and can help them with a solution. I prepared a short document there and then to show what data we needed and what we could deliver which impressed and satisfied them. The meeting finished with an obligatory photo (can you spot me?) and I got back into the car for trip back to the hotel.
Checkpoints on Oxford Street
We took a more direct route back which meant we were stopped at a check point in the middle of Baghdad. This is the area around Saddam Hussein’s former palace which used to be a thriving shopping area (the “Oxford Street of Baghdad”). It has recently and frequently been targeted for car bombing so the road has check points at either end, which somewhat limits the appeal of the retail outlets. Also there was a fairly long wait in the heat to clear the check point which of course has meant that the place gets targeted again by the “mad people” as there are loads of people waiting in the queue! Eventually we got back to the hotel and I reviewed the meeting with my local representative and made action points for the teams back in London and Dubai.
After a long day I was finally alone to catch up on emails, have some dinner and a well-deserved beer. Unfortunately the hotel had run out of beer – not even a non-alcoholic beer in this hotel! I was advised to stay in the hotel for my own safety – advice I was happy to take.
Allow plenty of time travelling back to Baghdad airport
Getting back to the airport is another story of security. I was picked up by my host and driven to a check point several miles from the centre of Baghdad and from the airport. At this point, I changed to a taxi having gone through another check point and personal search. Then the taxi is stopped for another check, get out of the car and the car is searched with sniffer dogs, the bonnet up, doors open, boot open and I go for a bag search and personal check (Passport and ticket).
I am accused of being Sir Alex Ferguson although what Alex Ferguson would be doing in Iraq, I have no idea. This has happened to me before in Algeria – but really – do I look anything like SAF??
Final check is like airport entry security, but about a couple of miles from the airport. Once negotiated, we resume the journey to the airport terminal. Ah! We are finally there.
Oh no you are not! I am dropped in an empty road outside the terminal, and quite a way from it. There is an unnerving lack of people to see or talk to or ask directions from. I was a little alarmed at this point since the taxi driver did not speak English and he waved me towards the terminal and drove off. Was I being fed to the lions? There was virtually no one around, and the terminal doors are all blocked up and blacked out. At this point, as I walked towards the terminal to find a door that was open, I was approached by a security guard. I assumed he was a security guard since he had a uniform and a high vis jacket, and a gun, obviously, they all do. I certainly treated him with the respect which a man with those accoutrements deserves – the gun mostly: hi-vis Jackets I have less respect for. Rather surprisingly, I was asked to leave my bags in the middle of the road and leave them there (again a little unnerving). But the situation improved when some other people turned up a few minutes later with bags and left them next to mine in the middle of the road. You are asked to walk away a considerable number of meters while a sniffer dog checks to make sure there are no explosives in the bags. If all OK, (reassuringly, I had no explosives, or did my fellow travellers – I am not quite sure what happens if the you do!) then you go on to the final security check to get into the airport terminal, and one more security check to actually get to the to check in desks.
After check in, and after passport control, there is one penultimate security check. At this point, there was a man with a HUGE parcel wrapped up with string in that plastic laundry bag checked material (what is wrong with suitcases?) that was too big to go through the final scanner and had become lodged in it. After some heated discussion (all Arabic seems to be heated to me!) the matter was resolved. No need to scan that big bundle of whatever it is, because he can take that on the plane! I hope it wasn’t my flight he was on! And the final security check is just before boarding the plane, but different rules apply to this one. Shoes must be taken off! (this is the first of, what, perhaps 8 screenings when my shoes were required to be removed). And they asked me if I had a lighter! I don’t think it was to light their cigarettes. I showed them my Nicotine chewing gum and offered them some. They declined. Not much demand for nicotine chewing gum – Smoking is allowed everywhere in Iraq. I get onto the plane (again via Istanbul to London) and reflect on a very interesting trip.
In summary – 5 tips for visiting Baghdad
My advice to my staff and to other business visitors is:
- Iraq (well Baghdad) is very safe for international business visitors
- Get the right introductions and a local host / representative
- Travel light
- Be prepared
- Have your Alex Ferguson autograph ready (or whichever famous westerner you have a remote likeness too..)
Hope this rambling article was of use to you. If anyone needs support with subsurface engineering then please give me a call!
Tel: +44 20 7428 1111