How have your mission’s activities developed since its establishment, and how would you assess the current bilateral relations between the KRG and Spanish government?
Compared to the UK, France, Germany or Sweden, Spain has an extremely small Kurdish community, and therefore little knowledge or connection to the Kurdistan Region. For that reason, when we opened the office in 2010, we developed a number of public diplomacy initiatives to spread the Kurdistan Region’s name. Our activities at that point were largely focused on building confidence, trust and a friendship between the KRG Spain office and various government and non-governmental institutions. Spain was deep in an economic crisis that seemed to be worsening, and they did not have a large economic presence in Middle Eastern economies. We were constantly delivering presentations to many government bodies, the private sector and universities. We then led large trade missions to Kurdistan. The first was with the Spanish Institute for Investment & Exportation (ICEX), a government agency of the Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness focused on the internationalization of Spanish companies. The second was with Agragex, Spain’s association for exporting agricultural machinery, equipment and irrigation systems. From that moment forward, Spanish private sector interest in Kurdistan grew and grew.
What progress has your mission made since 2010, and what milestones do you foresee in the near term?
Since opening, we have since hit a number of important milestones. We have earned the trust of the Spanish central government and the regional authorities. When we arranged for a ministerial delegation to visit in 2013, Spain’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs arranged a meeting between the Minister of Foreign Affairs Jose Garcia-Margallo and Deputy PM of the KRG Emad Ahmad. Since that meeting, Spain has appointed an Honorary consul in the Region and the opening of a permanent consulate in Erbil is in the pipeline. Minister Falah Mustafa also recently completed a follow up meeting with Spain’s Secretary of State for International Relations. Things are constantly developing. Where we stand today is completely different to where we stood when I first started.
Having built a close relationship with Spain’s Ministry of Economy & Competitiveness and the Spanish Institute for Investment & Exportation (ICEX), we determined that the four primary sectors that offer the most potential to Spanish investors and entrepreneurs are construction, agriculture, education and tourism.
Which of Kurdistan’s economic sectors offer the most potential for Spanish investors and entrepreneurs?
Having built a close relationship with Spain’s Ministry of Economy & Competitiveness and the ICEX, we determined that the four primary sectors that offer the most potential to Spanish investors and entrepreneurs are construction, agriculture, education and tourism. We have to build some 59,000 housing units per year in the Region to meet the demand, with a projected total investment by 2020 sitting at around $1.3 billion. As for agriculture, Kurdistan has huge potential with 35% of our total land area being arable. However the sector has suffered years of neglect and is in desperate need of revival. As for education, the KRG is determined to raise the bar to international academic standards. We currently have some eleven private universities and there is both room and desire to open more. Tourism offers huge potential. Last year alone the Ministry of Tourism and Municipalities allocated $950 million, to complete a total of 47 new projects. The Region is constantly attracting new tourists, especially from the Middle East, and Erbil was recently voted Arab Tourism Capital of 2014.
What targets do you have for future economic cooperation between Spain and the Kurdistan Region?
We will be organizing seminars in think tanks that are focused on economic matters. Also we aim to hold a conference related specifically to the targeted economic sectors in which we feel Spain has a lot to offer, and invite leading businessmen, experts and government officials from the Region to participate. Moreover, we will be approaching various chambers of commerce all over Spain in order to present the economic situation of the Region along with the potential areas of opportunity for their members. We will be leading trade delegations to visit Kurdistan. ICEX has already scheduled Iraq investment initiatives for 2014, and will be making an annual appearance to the Region. An objective of ours is to strengthen economic cooperation by matchmaking potential partners to begin join ventures. We will be encouraging companies to attend trade fairs in Erbil where they can meet their Kurdish counterparts and network amongst decision makers of the Region.
To what extent has this strategy increased Spanish investment in Kurdistan?
So far, this strategy has been working well, as many Spanish companies have now established branch offices in the Region, after having signed agreements to go into joint ventures with various local partners. In the past year our office registered more than eight new companies, which are now working in Kurdistan. The number is constantly increasing, although we would like to see it increase even more in the next few years. Spain’s Repsol entered into a PSC with the KRG’s MNR back in 2011 acquiring two exploration blocks. Another Spanish company, INES Ingenieros, worked on a one-year contract with UNESCO to help revitalize a number of houses within Erbil’s 8,000 year old citadel.
Where do you see Kurdish/Spanish relations in the medium term, in terms of prospects and opportunities?
We will work to develop even stronger bonds with Spain. We will touch upon the areas where we know there is potential for cooperation to ensure a closer relationship. Once Spain emerges from the economic crisis I am sure we will see a consulate opened in Erbil, as there is a high level of interest from senior officials in the government to do so. Opening a Spanish consulate would facilitate a drastic increase in Spanish presence in Erbil. The previous Spanish Ambassador to Iraq, Jose Turpin, was crucial in laying the foundations and has played a pivotal role in solidifying the relationship; the new Ambassador has similarly offered his friendship and assistance. If he is able to play a part then I am sure we will see things develop even further between Spain and Kurdistan.
Your mission is also involved in increasing Portuguese investment in the Region. Can you tell us about this?
Yes, we have recently been developing foundations for the KRG’s relationship with Portugal. The Portuguese government approached us mid-2013 and were very eager to begin taking the first steps toward building a relationship with the Kurdistan Region. The company building Slemani Airport’s cargo terminal is Portuguese, and there is also another Portuguese company supplying supermarkets in Kurdistan. There is an especially high interest in Kurdistan coming from engineers and the banking sector. During Minister Falah Mustafa’s visit to Portugal in February of this year, I signed the declaration of the Portugal-Kurdistan Region of Iraq Business Association (AEPKI) and we now seek to strengthen ties with Portugal the same way we have done in Spain.