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Bryan Cave transaction partner David Pfeiffer speaks quickly and without emotion, characteristics which doubtless served him well during his two recent visits to Iraq. On both occasions he and his 11 fellow travellers, all Western businessmen, were escorted in bullet-proof vehicles and were each assigned an SAS bodyguard.
Wisely, they avoided Baghdad, where Pfeiffer said 37 employees of one large Western company have been shot dead in recent hostilities. Instead he focused on the safer southern cities of Basra and Um Qasr, his plan being to set up an office in one of them.
After years working in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, Pfeiffer is well aware of the need for caution. Irrespective of the war, relationships in the Middle East aren’t built overnight. Pfeiffer, however, is at an advantage in that Bryan Cave has had 10 years of client-building in Kuwait. This is now paying dividends. Most companies investing in Iraq – apart from construction companies based in the vast armed camps around Baghdad – are setting up in Kuwait. This also gives Pfeiffer the edge over other lawyers who made a mad dash for Baghdad in the aftermath of the latest conflict and have, apparently, since seen doors closed on them, Clyde & Co being an obvious example.
Nonetheless, Pfeiffer is discovering that wading through the minefield of laws for companies wanting to do business in Iraq seems as tortuous as travelling through the war-spoilt land.
Currently, Pfeiffer represents a Western company planning to export nitrate fertiliser to Iraq. In doing so, he is having to draw on knowledge of EU and US laws on goods movement, UK law, Kuwaiti and Iraqi contract law, and also prove to Iraq’s provisional government that the fertiliser is not part of bomb-making equipment. He is also acting for a company specialising in explosives used to blow holes in oil wells, which is facing similar difficulties.
It is intense work, and there is a lot of it around. However, US firms’ Iraq-related work will stretch far beyond corporate transactions – others will focus on claims against Iraqi banks, for example.
And the UK firms? Nowhere to be seen. The US dominance of post-war contracts has effectively shut them out, with the possible exception of Stephenson Harwood. Whatever you think about the war and its aftermath, and however close Downing Street is to the White House, there aren’t many openings for UK businesses. UK firms need not apply.