Today the Government are publishing a new Iraq strategy, a copy of which I will place in the Library of the House.
Iraq is changing. After years of conflict and uncertainty, it has a democratically elected Government and is becoming gradually more stable, although a serious threat from terrorism remains.
Our Government are committed to a broad and enduring relationship with Iraq. We want to support a stable, prosperous and democratic Iraq that is a positive and influential regional actor in a region that is vital to UK security and prosperity. We wish to strengthen our commercial ties with a regional economy of growing importance.
To that end we have taken several steps to strengthen the UK’s partnership with Iraq.
Over the past 18 months, there have been 15 ministerial visits between the UK and Iraq, covering our foreign policy, security and commercial interests, including a visit I made in September.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has supported visits to the United Kingdom by the Iraqi Parliament’s committees for security and defence, human rights, finance, and foreign affairs. This has helped to develop links between the United Kingdom and Iraqi Parliaments and to support Iraqi democracy.
We have taken steps to increase our economic relationship with Iraq. Our embassy in Baghdad has supported numerous delegations of British businesses seeking to re-enter the Iraqi market. We will shortly open a new visa application centre in Baghdad, meaning that Iraqis will no longer need to travel outside of the country to obtain a UK visa, which will make it easier for British businesses to do business with Iraq. During my recent visit to Baghdad, I also agreed to establish a ministerial trade council of British and Iraqi Ministers and business leaders to increase trade and investment links between our two countries.
Following my visit to Iraq in September I have reviewed our diplomatic presence across the country. I have decided to focus staff and resources where they will support the United Kingdom’s partnership with Iraq as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible, and with the greatest impact in the areas of our relationship of the most importance. We will do this by strengthening our embassy in Baghdad, increasing our diplomatic presence in Erbil and moving our representation in Basra onto a different footing.
First, we need to increase the amount of diplomatic resources we are able to concentrate in Iraq’s capital Bagdad. We are therefore expanding our political section to increase its reach across all of Iraq’s 18 governorates and help address some of the main issues preventing British businesses from entering into the Iraqi markets. We are recruiting additional staff in Baghdad to strengthen our UKTI office and help British businesses access markets throughout Iraq.
Secondly, the review of our resources in Iraq has confirmed that the Kurdistan region continues to attract significant interest from British businesses. I am therefore increasing our staffing levels in Erbil. Today, for example, over 40 British companies are attending the Erbil international trade fair, with support from UK Trade and Investment (UKTI). We will recruit a new UKTI commercial attache to expand the consulate-general’s already successful commercial section. I have also made clear my firm intention that the Government should maintain the British consulate-general Erbil on a permanent footing.
Thirdly, we will maintain a British embassy office in Basra to support our work with all of Iraq’s central and southern governorates. However, this will not be staffed permanently.
Because of the improving security situation, it is now easier and safer for staff to travel from Baghdad to Basra and around the country more generally. In particular, embassy staff can now fly direct to Basra airport in one hour, rather than having to undertake a 48-hour trip as was the case previously. This means that we can support UK interests in Basra effectively without the need for staff to be permanently based there. In turn, this allows us to reduce the cost of our presence in Basra, currently £6.5 million per annum. This is significantly more than the cost of, for example, our much larger embassy in Kuwait City.
Her Majesty’s ambassador, his deputy and other diplomatic staff will continue to make frequent visits across Iraq, including to Basra, to ensure that we continue to maintain the strength and depth of our relationship with Iraq.
I am confident that these are the right decisions. They will enable the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Iraq network to achieve the Government’s ambitious strategy for improving commercial ties with Iraq and supporting a stable, secure, democratic Iraq that is a positive and influential regional actor.
The savings we make from a more efficient Iraq network will also allow us to strengthen the United Kingdom’s presence in key emerging powers. This involves opening 11 new British embassies and eight new consulates by 2015 and deploying 300 extra staff to 22 countries, including Burma, Thailand, South Korea, North Korea, Mongolia, Malaysia, Nigeria, Angola, Botswana, Chile, Argentina, Columbia, Panama, Peru, Pakistan, Vietnam and the Philippines with the biggest increases in China and India. This is in line with the statement I made to Parliament on “The Future Diplomatic Network” in May 2011.