How would you assess the relations between Austria and the KRG?
We are fortunate to be working closely with a foreign government whose ties with the Kurdistan Region date back to the 1970s, when Austria was one of the first countries to grant asylum to refugees from the Kurdistan Region. During these difficult times throughout the 1980s, the Austrian government never wavered in their support. Today we are solidifying these historic ties by encouraging and facilitating the active engagement of Austrian companies in the Region. The many official meetings of President Barzani with Austrian President Fischer, as well as the visits of Minister Falah Mustafa and other high-ranking officials with the Austrian chancellery, foreign and other ministries and institutions, including the Austrian Economic Chamber are indicative of our strong friendly relations.
The Austrian government opened a Schengen Visa processing center in Erbil. In what ways do you think that it will improve ties between the Kurdistan Region and Austria?
One cannot stress the importance of this Visa application center enough. Prior to the establishment of the application center in January of this year, individuals were required to personally travel to the Austrian embassies in Amman or Ankara, a lengthy process that was also very costly. Many Kurds and Iraqis would make frequent visits to Austria as tourists, students, and patients, and we wanted to help ease the application process for these individuals. We voiced our concerns and urged for a better application process for everyone. Even during a visit to Erbil in November 2011, the Austrian Vice Chancellor and former Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger agreed and emphasized how essential it was to open such an office. Today, all Iraqi citizens can directly apply in Erbil for a visa.
How would you characterize the commercial ties between the both sides?
A number of Austrian companies are already making use of the vast commercial opportunities the Kurdistan Region has to offer. Austrian Airlines was the first international carrier to offer direct flights to Erbil in 2006, contributing immensely in connecting Kurdistan with the rest of the world. Other prominent examples of Austrian commercial activity are the energy company OMV, and Doppelmayr, who built cable cars on Korek Mountain and in Slemani, and is currently working on another project in Duhok. Aside from these projects, our office meets daily with smaller Austrian companies who are showing an increasing interest in the Kurdistan Region’s business opportunities. Although at the beginning there was naturally a bit of reluctance due to the unstable security situation in some parts of Iraq, these reservations have largely been overcome thanks to information exchange and firsthand visits to the Kurdistan Region. Our goal now is to promote B2B opportunities between Austria and the Kurdistan Region.
Do you work with the Austrian commercial office in Erbil or other business groups with interest in Kurdistan?
The existence of an Austrian commercial office in Erbil as well as the active participation of Austrian companies in the numerous trade fairs, too, underline the great interest Austrian companies are showing in the Kurdistan Region. We plan to organize sector-focused events in the coming months as we firmly believe that the Kurdistan Region’s agriculture and tourism sector, which are defined as priority sectors by our government, could benefit greatly from the extensive Austrian expertise and experiences in these fields.