As managing director of a $10 million a year engineering company based in the United Arab Emirates, Unnithan figured he would meet, greet and forge relations with companies such as Haliburton and Bechtel who are already working in the war-ravaged country.

For two days, he listened to speakers representing institutions as diverse as the US Army Corps of Engineers and DHL talk about the lucrative business opportunities in Iraq.

He also heard them relate tales of the country’s ever-worsening security situation.

No interest

Although he never expected to leave the conference with a deal in place, after hearing what the experts had to say, Unnithan decided that even if offered a contract, he wouldn’t accept.

 "It’s premature to talk about rebuilding Iraq without security and the rule of law"

K.P.B Unnithan

That’s how concerned he is about the American-led coalition authority’s inability to mitigate the violence that now plagues bankrupt Iraq.

“I think it’s premature to talk about rebuilding Iraq without security and the rule of law,” he said, adding that he believes Iraq won’t be safe for investors until a representative Iraqi government is in place.

He said he wouldn’t consider making a deal “unless there are guarantees for the people who work there that there will be protection from the day they start working, till the day they finish.”

Frustration

Unnithan was just one of about 150 company representatives who attended the two-day conference. Many of his counterparts expressed real frustration about the manner in which the reconstruction is being handled.

Some were worried about how to protect their employees from guerrilla attack, others on about the cost of hiring private security details. Still more spoke of the bureaucratic nightmare involved in navigating the subcontract bidding process.

Filing the necessary paperwork is challenging enough they say, getting phone calls returned by contracting giants such as Halliburton and Bechtel is nearly impossible.

Smaller companies, like American Bio-Med Ambulette, Inc., a medical supply company in Brooklyn, New York with only 18 employees, said it’s been difficult to distinguish themselves from the thousands of other firms chasing subcontracts.

A touch of independence

“We’ve registered with Bechtel and Halliburton, and so far we’ve heard nothing, so we figured ‘let’s get down here,’ ” said Fritz-Earle Mclymont, the company’s marketing director.

Iraqi firemen inspect a blazing
pipeline near the northern Iraqi
town of Beji.

Mclymont said the biggest stumbling block thus far has been “getting through the bureaucracy and making things happen.”

Even companies that have done work in the past for the major contractors like Halliburton said it’s been a struggle to make it out of the starting gate.

“There’s too many people who are after [Halliburton] for business and information, so they don’t have the time for people,” said Reyad Hijazi, managing partner for the Al-Julaiah Trading & Contracting Co., a Kuwaiti company that has previously done business with a Halliburton subsidiary.

Hijazi said he hopes to win a KBR subcontract to repair the electric motors that were damaged during the war.

Low expectations

Few, if any, of the company representatives at the conference, expected to win a contract on the spot—that’s not why they came.

“I don’t think I’m going to get any contract doing this,” said Sebastian Joseph, the operational manager for International Popular Co., a food service and laundry equipment supplier in Kuwait.

Even the bigger companies seemed realistic about their prospects. Paul McGarry, who works for the Rittal Corporation, a metal parts firm in Columbus, OH, whose German parent company boasts roughly $2 billion a year in sales, said he “didn’t expect to get a lot of bites here.”

Instead, McGarry said he wanted to get a better sense of who’s doing what with whom.

Who and what

“What I would expect to come out of this conference is to learn the companies that have been awarded contracts and who they’re awarding subcontracts,” he said.

Whether or not the conference will produce any tangible benefits attendees is unclear. But Unnithan said there remains an immense gap between talk and action.

“I think that there are only ideas at this conference,” he said. “To bring something to reality will take a lot of time.”