16 Oct 2012

UK’s Basra consulate to lose permanent staffing

The UK’s consulate in Basra, in Iraq’s oil-rich south, will no longer be permanently staffed, the Foreign Office says, as businesses complain it will mean the UK misses out on trade opportunities.

Oil refinery in Basra (Reuters)

In a written ministerial statement, the Foreign Office (FCO) confirmed reports it will maintain its office in Basra but that it will not be staffed permanently.

The government says a review of its resources in Iraq shows that the Kurdistan region in the east of the country is attracting “significant interest” from British businesses so it will be increasing its staffing levels in Erbil with a view to recruiting a permanent consulate general there.

The Foreign Office told Channel 4 News that currently it only offers “limited” consular assistance from Basra and that in case of an emergency, the main embassy in Baghdad is only an hour away by air. It said the current ambassador and his staff will continue to visit Basra but it is unclear how the bureau will be maintained.

I hope it is a step sideways and not a step backwards. The British business presence down in Basra is absolutely critical. Baroness Nicholson

Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt maintained the decision is to “make sure we can cover all parts of [Iraq] more effectively than we’ve done up to now”.

“We can make sure we’re covering Basra by deploying more people in Baghdad… It’s not a zero-sum game. Many British companies have told us that they would rather we had a presence in Baghdad and that we beef that up,” he said.

The FCO says annually the Basra consulate costs £6.5m to run.

Little impact

The changes follow the UK government’s pledge in 2011 to make its network of embassies and consulates more efficient as it seeks to make budget savings of 10 per cent.

John Drake, head of global intake at risk consultancy AKE, told Channel 4 News he does not think the move will have a serious impact: “Although more people are opening consulations there than closing them, I don’t think it will have a major impact on business in Iraq although it may have an effect in terms of perceptions.

“Businesses may be put off if they think the government doesn’t have a consulate there and it may impact on the government’s ability to host meetings with local people.”

According to AKE, in security terms, Basra is relatively safe when compared with other parts of Iraq. Their figures show there are around four attacks per month. Baghdad, by contrast, sees around one attack per day, in common with several other provinces in the central region.

Wrong signal?

Prior to the announcement, Baroness Nicholson, Executive Chairman of the Iraq Britain Business Council, told the BBC: “I regret the announcement that is coming out today.

“I hope it is a step sideways and not a step backwards. The British business presence down in Basra is absolutely critical.

The IBBC says the closure “sends the wrong signal to Baghdad”, and makes pitching for contracts harder.

But AKE’s John Drake points out that the presence of key government decision-makers in Baghdad means it is critical to have good relationships with and in the capital, not least because that is where companies must navigate licensing bureaucracy.