Q: The Trade Bank of Iraq has won numerous awards and recently received ISO 9001 certification. What brought you to this point, and what comes next?
A: Basically we started off by certifying our transaction banking: state finance and remittances. We embarked on that for about six months, getting ourselves ready, and then after this whole operation we were ready to take the audit. And we succeeded. But it’s not only our transaction banking. We also tried for the ISO certification for one of our branches in the international zone, and that was awarded a few months ago. Now we are trying to certify our IT in ISO.
Q: Following the Iraqi government’s victories against the Islamic State, what are you doing internationally to attract foreign investors to the country?
A: We are moving away from the instability of the Islamic State war, and now we have to rebuild the country. So the prime minister recognised that we need to be investor friendly to attract FDI. There have been a number of companies and official delegations coming to Iraq from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Companies such as Al Ahmar from Saudi Arabia are in negotiations for a project to build low- to medium-cost houses to alleviate the housing shortage in Iraq. We try to provide market knowledge to those investors because obviously they need to have data and up-to-date prices to cost their investments and projects, and to assist them to the stage where they can make a proper decision. We are optimistic that those decisions are going to be positive.
Q: The majority of Iraq falls into the informal cash-based economy, which keeps substantial capital out of the country’s financial system. How are you working to change this?
A: I would say that about 70% of the economy is cash-based transactions, and 30% of the population does banking. The government, through the IMF’s Stand-by Arrangement, is driving towards more use of electronic payments and banking. We are supporting that by taking on the salary payments payroll for the government. About 12 months ago, we used to have four or five departments with a total of 2500 people in terms of payroll. Today it’s about 30 [departments], and the total number is about 76,000. The idea is to get that cash, which is at home, to bring it into the bank.
Q: Iraq’s lack of access to financing and capital is a major impediment to local business growth. How are you working to facilitate financing for Iraqi SMEs, who will be crucial to the country's reconstruction and employment levels in the years ahead?
A: The government itself is providing an initiative and has set aside ID1000bn, which is the equivalent of almost $1bn, to support SMEs. This has been slow in terms of the financing, and TBI has been asked to manage that for the government. So by probably the end of 2017, we will be able to provide a mechanism to use that money for supporting smaller enterprises.
We are trying to expand our number of local domestic branches. We’ve added five branches in 2017 to have coverage in all provinces of Iraq. We’ve also tried to equip those branches with products. We are now working on a new product geared specifically to property owners, where we give the customer three times the annual rent as a loan, against an assignment of that rent. And they can use it to either help maintain or start new projects and properties, or to start a business.
Q: At the end of August, Jordan and Saudi Arabia announced the reopening of their borders with Iraq. What does this demonstrate, in your opinion, for the region?
A: This is in line with government efforts to extend its hands and for economic and friendly ties with our regional neighbours, which is very important. And this government has demonstrated its willingness to live in peace and fix ties with all neighbours, to the benefit of all countries. The government is demonstrating it doesn’t discriminate between citizens, whether they are Kurdish, Sunni, Shia, whatever, and wants to live in a peaceful Iraq, and develop and reconstruct the country and provide jobs for the youth. This has been a very clear objective of prime minister Haider Al Abadi and his government.
Q: Iraq’s only access to the sea is through Basra, where the country’s Umm Qasr port has seen an uptick in activity. Are there planned projects for port expansion?
A: Umm Qasr is the main port, but Iraq is also developing another port called the Grand Faw Port. The government started off phase one about three years ago, which was awarded to two foreign companies: UAE-based Archirodon and Daewoo of South Korea. Archirodon is going to be an investor for phase two of the Grand Faw project, which will include six berths and a free zone. This was announced in October and the timeline is within two to three years. This is going to be very important for Iraq because the development takes us to the sea, and [therefore the connected] industry.
This highlights that the results are now showing on the ground. Expanding the investment of UAE companies into Iraq is something that will be a major project for Iraq and to the benefit of the UAE companies.