British bank's Iraqi branch hailed
The opening of the first branch of a British bank in Iraq has been hailed by its prime minister as a sign of new international trust in the country, and a testament to the ongoing friendship between the new nations.
Speaking at the opening of the branch of Standard Chartered in Baghdad, prime minister Nouri Al-Maliki paid tribute to Britain for its support as the two countries continue to work to help Iraq rebuild itself after years of conflict.
The branch of the multinational banking and financial services company was opened in the Iraqi capital Baghdad at an official ceremony attended by dignitaries including Mark Bryson-Richardson, deputy head of mission at the British Embassy in Baghdad.
The opening of the branch, in a secure compound in Arrasat in Baghdad, marks the arrival of the first of three Standard Chartered branches in Iraq, with another in Erbil to follow by the end of this year, then one in Basra next year.
Speaking at the event, Mr Al-Maliki said: "This is an indicator of the trust of the association and the whole United Kingdom associations with the economy in Iraq.
"They consider Iraq as a level country and this has given us trust and also it gives reliability and confidence to the companies that seek to invest in Iraq."
He said the move would also help other areas such as reconstruction as other companies moved into Iraq.
"Also, the opening of this branch confirms the interest of both countries to enhance the relations of friendship and co-operation that has started already," he added.
He paid tribute to the help the UK has given, and continues to give, to Iraq.
"Of course the United Kingdom is a state that has contributed from the beginning in supporting Iraq and that has contributed to the process of transformation from dictatorship regime to a multi-lateral democratic regime.
"We have faced the changes together.
"We were in the same boat at confronting the terrorist organisations and toppling down the former dictator regime, and also we are in the same boat to seek more improvement to Iraq and to have more building and reconstruction of a new democratic regime in Iraq."
Today's opening has been billed as a milestone in the development of Iraq, but comes amid a growing surge of terror attacks that have swept across the country since April, including a double suicide bombing at a military base north of Baghdad last night.
Recent attacks have also included a truck bomb that tore through an outdoor vegetable market in the town of Sadiyah, around 87 miles north east of Baghdad; a suicide bomber at an army checkpoint in the town of Taji, north of Baghdad; and attacks across the city including car bombings and gun attacks.
Many suicide attacks and large-scale bombings - especially against security forces or crowded markets in Shia areas - have been attributed to al Qaida's local branch and Sunni insurgents, who view Shias as heretics.
Mr Al-Maliki admitted the country remains a dangerous place.
"The international community is aware of the dangerous situation of al Qaida," he said.
"There is a new sense in the international community about the danger that surrounds Iraq and the regime."
But he added authorities are seeing increased co-operation from Iraqi citizens, and they are working on new strategies to combat the problems.
At today's ceremony, the prime minister cut a ribbon at the new branch, as well as unveiling a plaque.
In a speech to guests, he said the move was a sign of trust in Iraq, which would send a message that international companies are welcome in Iraq.
Standard Chartered, which has its headquarters in London and more than 1,700 branches in more than 70 countries, said it is the first international bank to have fully-fledged on-the-ground wholesale banking operations in Iraq.
The move is a bid to meet increasing demands from global clients in the country from areas including oil, telecoms and infrastructure.
Standard Chartered has had a representative office in Erbil since 2006, but today's opening brings its first branch office, capable of full client banking, to Iraq.
The bank will help the Iraqi government, its ministries, and the Iraqi Central Bank in a specialist advisory role, as well as helping Iraqi public sector banks, private banks and local corporate companies.
A team of Iraqi staff have already joined the bank's team of experts and will continue to grow as the bank develops more services in Iraq.
The bank has said it hopes that its presence will make a difference to the country's economy and international reputation.
Mr Bryson-Richardson said: "From our point of view we are keen to encourage British business to re-engage here in Iraq and we think it's possible.
"They have got a really ambitious development plan", he said, and there was also an "impressive growth rate".
"We want to get British business here. Standard Chartered is really ahead of the curve in recognising the opportunity here.
"Our hope is that Standard Chartered will facilitate the entry into the market of other British companies and that Standard Chartered is really the start of a large commercial presence."
He said finance in Iraq was going through a much-needed process of reform, and they hoped that companies and banks from all over the world would be drawn to the recovering country.
Admitting there are still ongoing security issues in Iraq, he said companies would need to be aware of those and plan for them.
"But if they take these practical steps then this is a good market to come and engage in.
"The problems are definitely continuing but there is a lot of progress and a lot of improvement in the commercial side and they can come and take advantage of that."
In a speech at the opening, Mr Bryson-Richardson said the UK was committed to being a partner in Iraq's development programme and to expanding its trade and economic relations with the country.
He said the Standard Chartered opening was the latest in several moves towards that including the opening last week by Prime Minister Maliki of the largest ever British Trade Mission to Baghdad, involving 50 companies, as well as a Joint Ministerial Trade Council between Iraq and the UK in London.
He said other steps to ensure progress include the opening of visa application centres in Baghdad and Erbil this year, with another hoped to open in Basra, as well as efforts to enable direct flights between Iraq and the UK, and the formation of a high-level financial working group to share expertise.
Gavin Wishart, Standard Chartered's Iraq CEO, said: "We are optimistic about the prospects of the Iraqi economy.
"We believe there is substantial opportunity to play a leading role in the economic development of the country.
"In addition to servicing our existing clients, the Iraqi government is planning large scale infrastructure projects and these will require international financing solutions.
"Standard Chartered Bank is ideally positioned to provide the necessary leadership, support, skills and access to international markets to enable these initiatives to be undertaken and to develop the local financial sector."