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Tuesday, 6 November, 2001, 13:07 GMT
Iraq's trade fair gets underway
Taha Yassin Ramadan, Iraqi vice president (R) follows United Arab Emirates Economy and Trade Minister Fahim bin Sultan al-Qassimi
Trade ministers arrive at the opening of Iraq's international trade fair
By the BBC's Caroline Hawley from Baghdad

Iraq's annual international trade fair is underway, and officials are billing it as the biggest since UN sanctions were imposed in 1990.

The country is seeking to come out of isolation by signing trade accords including free trade agreements with many different countries.

[Countries] are willing to see the future for their business in Iraq

Iraq's trade minister, Mohammad Mehdi Saleh

More than 1600 companies are attending the gathering.

Iraq's trade minister, Mohammad Mehdi Saleh, proudly lists each of the 47 countries taking part in this year's Baghdad international trade fair, two more than last year.

This is a political as well as an economic boost for Iraq.

Eying a post-sanctions market

The representatives are gathering to sell their goods under the UN's oil-for-food programme which allows Baghdad to import food, medicines and more and more other products as well.

However, the trade minister insists that they are also eyeing a post-sanctions market, and as he sees it, the embargo is crumbling.

"The world and the international community are increasingly participating in this fair, reflecting the will of those countries and companies to co-operate with Iraq. They are willing to see the future for their business in Iraq," said Mr Mehdi Saleh

Taha Yassin Ramadan, Iraqi vice President (R) with Iraqi Trade Minister Mohammad Mehdi Saleh
Iraqi Trade Minister Mohammad Mehdi Saleh (l) is hoping for an economic boost

Ten European countries are taking part in the fair, along with 15 Arab states.

Notable absentees are Britain and America - the proponents of what have been dubbed smart sanctions, an attempt to curb extensive trade that Iraq is doing outside of the oil-for-food programme.

Increasingly competitive

Iraq says it will now reward those countries that have opposed the "smart sanctions" proposals with preferential treatment when it comes to contracts.

Russia, Syria, Turkey and Jordan all stand to gain - good news for Jordanian businessmen, Jamal el-Ezz, who says doing business in Iraq has become increasingly competitive.

"It's a good market to do business but it's not like before because competition now is bigger because of the opening of the Iraqi market to the whole world.

"You have to have better quality and better prices with other companies from all over the world," he said.

Vote of confidence

Consumers can buy pretty much anything in Baghdad these days - from the latest CDs to expensive hi-fi equipment to play them on.

Faris el-Hadi, the Samsung dealer for Iraq, manages a show-room filled with widescreen TVs, fancy fridges, and brand new washing machines.

But he says he sells to only a tiny minority of Iraqis - that because of sanctions, his products are beyond the reach of the vast majority.

"It's not the problem getting goods into Iraq. We have no problems getting what we want. The only difficulty is getting the money to buy them. Most people can't even afford them, they can't afford enough food or clothes, really for them these things are a dream."

And Faris el-Hadi says he has now lost business as Iraqis hold onto their money, fearing Iraq could be the next target of America's war in the wake of the 11 September terrorist attacks.

In such an uncertain political climate, officials are describing the strong attendance at this year's Baghdad fair as a vote of confidence in the Iraqi market of the future.

See also:

30 Aug 01 | Middle East
Iraq tops world 'disappeared' list
03 Jul 01 | Middle East
Iraq escapes 'smart sanctions'
02 Jul 01 | Middle East
Analysis: Iraq wins sanctions battle
30 Oct 01 | Middle East
Iraq condemns US 'aggression'
23 Feb 01 | Americas
Blair pledges to contain Iraq
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