Corporate Globalisation: as easy as A.B.C.C.

''a wide range of services to both Arab and British companies already involved in or planning to become a part of a long-standing bilateral trading relationship. These services include certification and legalisation of documents, business information and research, seminars and workshops, translation, language and cultural training, library facilities and a range of business publications''. [1]

‘Friendship through trade’ is the company’s motto, but its role is far more sinister. As an organisation simultaneously representing government and business elites from the UK and Arab countries, it wields substantial power in creating the conditions, in both the UK and the Arab world, in which the needs of those government and business elites are met. It does this by trying to enhance connections across business, government, the media, academic and policy networks, publishing and civil society. It furthers British businesses interests in established and emerging markets – easing the difficulties of breaking into a foreign market, and greasing the wheels of corporate globalisation. Regarding Iraq, it is a crucial player in the attempts to embed corporations in the fabric of Iraqi society.

Unsurprisingly, the ABCC have been eager to promote Iraq as a place to do business. However they have done so in the language of philanthropy: ‘We hope that our services can assist in the rebuilding of Iraq, and the strengthening of British Iraqi relations for the mutual benefit of both’.[2] As part of the package for ABCC members, it produces a fortnightly ‘Iraq Newsletter’ (the only country-specific section of its fortnightly bulletin of business information about investment opportunities), country profiles, and notice of tenders, conferences and trade fairs. It is also a major sponsor of the Iraq Development Program, which hosts a series of summits (held usually in London or Amman, Jordan) that provide ‘the opportunity for Iraqi companies and business people to meet and form relationships with senior figures from the international business community.’[3]

The ABBC also promotes similar events, such as ‘Invest Basra’, due to take place in Kuwait in March 2008. This is organised by the Basra Development Commission, described in the event flyer as the new ‘independent business champion’.[4] Set up by the Department for International Development (DfID), the Basra Development Commission is Gordon Brown’s most recent contribution to the neo-liberal development of Iraq and has been created with the explicit purpose of encouraging private sector growth in the region.[5]

The ABCC regularly organises visits from key Iraqi ministries looking to attract UK investors to Iraq. In January 2007 they hosted a visit from five Ministers and deputy Ministers from the Iraqi Ministry for Industry and Minerals. At this meeting, Minister Hariri outlined the purpose of his visit . It was ‘to plug the experience and technology gap before moving on to privatization’. Elaborating further, he asserted that ‘as the economy moves towards operating under free market conditions with the prospects of privatisation the aim...strategic partnerships with international firms in possession of much needed expertise would prove invaluable’.[6] He wanted to use this as an opportunity ‘to meet with appropriate UK contacts as potential investors and partners’ insisting that Iraq’s ‘reconstruction offered one of the greatest investment opportunities in the world today’.[7] The ABCC also arranged for the delegation to meet other leading UK companies and business associations, such as Corus, Rolls-Royce, British Expertise, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), International Financial Services London (IFSL), CEMEX, as well as the UK Department for Trade and Investment (UKTI), plus the Minister for the Middle East, Dr Kim Howells.[8]

The ABCC is an embodiment of the current form of corporate ‘democracy’ existing in the UK, and is active in encouraging the development of a similar model in Iraq. All the directors are powerful figures inside government, international business and civil society, from Britain and from Arab countries. For example, several ABCC directors are, or have been, prominent diplomats with the UK FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) to Middle Eastern countries, including their current chairman, Sir Roger Tomkys. Other ABCC directors include:

Christopher Wilton, a current advisor to both the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as well as the Royal Bank of Scotland, and Selex Sensors and Airborne Systems Limited (who make radar equipment for ‘defence’ and 'security' systems).[9] Until 2001 he was the Managing Director for the Middle East for BAE Systems.

Khaled El-Seif manages one of the largest business groups in Saudi Arabia, and has also been a Member of the Advisory Committee from the private sector (formed by the Ministry of Commerce) supporting the Saudi Arabian-World Trade Organization negotiating team.[10]

Baroness Symons, an important architect of the New Labour project, is a current ABCC director.[11] She has served as Minister for Defence Procurement, Minster of State for the Middle East in the FCO and Minister of State for Trade in the Department of Trade and Industry, holding the last two positions simultaneously. It cannot be assumed that her influence and contacts were lost when she moved to the House of Lords. Indeed, she maintains her business connections as a member of the board of British Expertise, ‘the leading private sector organisation for the promotion of professional services from the UK’.[12]

ABCC directors also provide information and experience used by the UK government. For instance, Martin Patterson was employed as a translator for the British Army in Basra in 2003. He also displays good business connections, working as regional manager for De La Rue, who designed the new currency for Iraq. He also has company business in Iraq, Turkey, Afghanistan and the Balkans.[13]

Sandy Shaw, another director, is head of the Middle East Team at Coutts and Co, (the private banking arm of RBS), and apparently ‘pioneered the introduction of the private banking concept in the Middle East in the late 1980s’ and her career has provided her with a ‘personal client list [which] reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ of the Arab world.’[14]

The ABCC also provides members with access to powerful elite groups. For instance, Baroness Symons, is a member of the British-American Project, a networking organisation for corporate, political and intellectual elites, whose mission is to ensure that the left and liberal intelligentsia are not hostile to US foreign policy interests.[15] It can be seen that working behind the scenes the ABCC functions as a crucial meeting point for elites to get together, make deals, discuss business, and influence government policy and business practice.

But the ABCC also wish to have a public impact. They state that they have ‘Promoting a better mutual understanding be it in the political or cultural sphere, [...] at the heart of [their] media mission’ and claim their directors can provide media interviews that give ‘unique insight from both the UK and Arab States.’[16] Some of the directors are themselves journalists or even media barons; Sir Alan Munro is the director of the Middle East International magazine.[16] Mr Al Tayer, third vice chairman of the ABCC is also Partner and Managing Director of Al-Nisr Publishing which publishes an English daily newspaper, ‘Gulf News’ and a weekly magazine, and a partner in Motivate Publishing which publishes three specialist magazines, and various periodicals and books. He is also chairman of the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry.[17]

The ABCC also try to influence public opinion via the production of information and knowledge on Arab countries, and to ensure that education on this subject is corporate friendly. Dr Humayon Dar, an ABCC director, is a banker with Deutsche Bank subsidiary and an expert in Islamic Finance. He helped establish a postgraduate degree course in Islamic economics, banking and finance.[18] Sir Roger Tomkys, as well as a diplomat and current ABCC chairman, served as the President of the British Middle East Society, (the professional association of academics working in this field) Chairman of the Centre for International Studies, and at the Centre for Middle East and Islamic Studies.[19] He is now on the international advisory group of the Centre for the Advanced Study of the Arab World (a newly-formed research consortium based at the universities of Edinburgh, Manchester and Durham) and sits on the management committee of the Council for the Advancement of Arab British Understanding (CAABU).[20]

Dr. Ghantous, current Secretary General of the General Union of Chambers of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture for Arab Countries, was also a lecturer in Economics at the American University of Beirut, and still writes articles and conference papers.[21]

Several directors also seem to have close connections with NGOs, in particular the British Red Cross Society. For instance, Sir Alan Munro is the Vice-chairman of the British Red Cross Society, and Baroness Symons is a member.[22] In this way, not only can the ABCC play a role in the decisions at the British Red Cross Society, but the two can lend moral weight to one another’s activities. In addition, Humayon Dar is on the board of directors of Charity Bank Limited, whose stated purpose is to ‘change perceptions of how personal and corporate wealth can provide finance for the benefit of society’.[23] It is also a platform to facilitate business and NGO connections, accumulating moral capital that benefits both ‘sides’.

It is clear that the main mission of the ABCC is to maintain and extend corporate power in Britain, the Middle East and North Africa. That the Arab country with most business connections to the ABCC and the most trade between ABCC companies is Saudi Arabia, puts into question the ABCC commitment to democracy.[24] The destruction and ‘reconstruction’ of Iraq is in essence the attempt to build another US/UK friendly satellite in the Middle East like Saudi Arabia. Interestingly, the ABCC seem aware of the inherent risks, and by extension their own culpability, in the establishment of such unequal and exploitative relationships between countries, and between people. The former head of external relations of the ABCC once commented that if the amount of Saudi money invested in London was known ‘there would be riots on the streets of Riyadh and Jeddah’.[25] But it is not so easy to hide the role of business elites in Iraq. A war opposed by the majority in the UK and an occupation actively resisted in Iraq - it seems unlikely that Iraq will ever be ‘reconstructed’ into the new Saudi Arabia.
References [1] [2] [3] [4] [5],, [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13] [14] [15], [16] [17] [18] [19] [20], [21] [22] , [23] [24] [25] Alana Semuels, 'Rich Arabs Invest in a Tolerant Britain', The Boston Globe, 23/03/06.