Meeting Mr Bechtel

The conference was called Doing Business with Iraq. I pinned the badge on my blouse and walked in

Betool Khedairi
Tuesday September 2, 2003
The Guardian

Why do you refuse to talk politics? You're an Iraqi woman, a writer and you live in the free world. Why have you not mentioned Saddam or Bush even once in your work?" This is a question I'm repeatedly asked by interviewers.

My late father, an Iraqi businessman, made me promise that I would never discuss or get involved in politics. In our part of the world, a promise made to a father is a spiritual tie, even more so after he dies. I tried my best not to break this father-daughter bond but, growing up in Baghdad, it wasn't always easy.

I can now appreciate his insight. My promise to him bought me time and, thanks to his advice, I have survived to tell some tales. But I had to start sometime, and so it was with political intent that I pinned a badge on my blouse and attended a conference at the Hayat hotel here in Amman, Jordan, called Doing Business With Iraq. As a lay person, I gathered this conference was an attempt to "do business" in a triangular form: the US, Jordan, Iraq and back again. The ballroom was packed with more than 1,000 people as the panel of foreign experts explained the mechanics of every businessman's fantasy: rebuilding a country.

Bechtel, Halliburton, the Jordanian minister of industry and trade, McKinsey & Company, the deputy chairman of the Iraqi Industries Federation, the WHO and many others had gathered. A plastic folder containing details of speakers, participants and briefs about the countries represented lay in every lap. The man from Bechtel started off by saying that the time for heroics was over. Now was the time for reconstruction. They used terms like "institutional strengthening", "getting the government in shape" and "self-sufficiency".

They underlined the need for internationally recognised standards of quality. They insisted on the importance of bridges. At the heart of their plans for a new Iraq was the dictum that ports lead to rails and rails lead to roads.

The Jordanians were worried about their pre-produced goods for Baghdad, piled up in warehouses thanks to existing contracts. How were they to free their funds from the banks with the country at a standstill? The panel assured them that they would take their concerns to the administration team in Baghdad to find solutions. They would also discuss these issues with the Central Bank of Jordan.

A heated question from the Jordanians regarded what was going to happen to their frozen letters of credit. How were they going to work with Iraq when there was no electricity or water and very tired human beings in such an insecure situation? Answer: "The timing is unclear. The key word of free economy is free. These answers have to come from the Iraqi government. We are in the process of de-Ba'athification, and that will take time."

In spite of the difficulties, it seemed that the panel's aim was to educate Iraqis on how to work with Americans. Terms like "affectionate", "with love" and "interest in the Iraqi people" were used alongside pie charts on how to save the economy and pictures of Iraqis working on construction sites.

During the discussions mobile phones were not turned off. An Iraqi tune, High Over the Palm Trees, was ringing out next to me, followed by a snatch of Tchaikovsky from an Indian investor's bag, then calls to prayer from an Islamic mobile. People were talking constantly during the gathering and the microphones kept switching themselves off, so at one stage the participants had to share one mic that kept shifting from hand to hand.

Mr Hikma Pharmaceuticals gave a balanced, short speech, saying that he thought nothing would be stable before next January, and that working with Iraq meant working with the Iraqi people and respecting their needs. I looked around me. I couldn't recognise many Iraqi faces. Many of the profiles were of men with bumpy noses and tummies sticking out. They looked like sets of Hitchcocks. Mr deputy chairman of the Iraqi Industries Federation welcomed any help Iraq could get, from anybody who could help.

Mr Jordanian ambassador to the United States summed up his view via the conference screen: "Jordan has always been the lungs that have allowed the Iraqis to breathe".

After hours of watching westerners floating around in light linen suits and easterners fiddling with their worry beads, the finale went something like this: "Privatisation of the public sector and diversification in the private sector." Eventually.

I miss my father. He was right. There are so many hidden truths that we, people outside politics, will never know about. He believed in building countries, not destroying them. Today I see another view taking shape: deconstruct countries in order to reconstruct them.

At six in the evening, a friend caught up with me in the corridor and asked: "So, if you're not here for business and you're not from the media, why did you pay the exorbitant subscription fee and waste a whole day?"

I answered: "Actually, I came here to gather information. I want to write a comedy."

Betool Khedairi, born of an Iraqi father and a Scottish mother, lived in Iraq until she was 24. Now 37, she lives in Amman. She is the author of a novel, A Sky So Close.


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