Since the fall of 2003, New-Fields Exhibitions, a Dubai-based marketing company with a corporate office in Washington, has organized over a dozen conferences promoting opportunities in Iraq’s reconstruction, security and oil sectors.
The names adorning the delegate lists of New-Fields’ events are among the Who’s Who of Iraq war profiteers: Halliburton/KBR, Bechtel, Titan, General Dynamics, Blackwater, Fluor, Perini, URS Corporation. But while the rebuilding effort in Iraq has become characterized by pervasive waste and fraud—turning funds once touted as a new Marshall Plan into what critics classify as corporate blood money—New-Fields, the self-arrogated hookup for Iraqi business deals, has avoided the scrutiny faced by some of its more dubious clientele.
One of New-Fields’ inaugural “Rebuilding Iraq” conferences, held in December 2003, was a harbinger of things to come. Over 400 representatives from 30 countries gathered at the Sheraton Hotel in Arlington, Virginia, “to network and devise solutions for the reconstruction and modernization of Iraq,” according to promotional materials. Officials in attendance spanned the Iraqi Governing Council, the Coalition Provincial Authority (CPA), the Department of Energy, the World Bank, the Pentagon and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). “The room had the feel of a souk…it was a marketplace of sorts,” reported the New York Times. “The best time to invest,” one prospective investor told the Nation’s Naomi Klein, “is when there is still blood on the ground.”
From Marshall Plan to Marshall Law
But the euphoria of those days—when unhindered opportunities in an “emerging Iraq market” were encouraged by lax oversight, rapid privatization and free-for-all procurement policies—quickly gave way to sectarian strife that made Iraq the most dangerous place on earth. The violence forced U.S. officials to funnel more reconstruction funds into the country’s security, chronically shortchanging infrastructure projects that aimed to rebuild roads, provide water, and ensure adequate sanitation and electricity. “What was originally conceived as a modest program to repair war damage,” reads a report from Special Inspector for Iraqi Reconstruction (SIGIR) Stuart Bowen, “had ballooned into an expansive and expensive nation-building effort.”
This nation-building effort presented a lucrative dividend for U.S. corporations. The Pentagon’s controversial and unprecedented use of private contractors had already illustrated Iraq’s potential profitability, while the Bush Administration’s initial $18.4 billion reconstruction outlay was a pittance of the $100 billion that then-CPA head Paul Bremer said would be needed to repair Iraq’s infrastructure alone. Taking advantage of these coveted contracts, New-Fields became the avant garde of the war’s opportunists, satiating “the need for American companies interested in doing business in Iraq to find Iraqi partners,” according to a company press release. With the Persian Gulf in the throes of civil war, New-Fields continued to court U.S. companies and eager Iraqi officials thousands of miles away in the idyllic calm of American hotel lobbies.
They hosted an event on small business opportunities in Chicago. They made “Rebuilding Iraq” an annual—and in a few instances, a bi-annual—series. They organized conferences targeting Iraq’s military, plugging them as “the world’s largest and most respected event[s] focused on Iraq’s aviation, security and defense challenges and opportunities.” They put on two Iraq oil & gas summits in Houston, attracting over 300 energy company representatives from around the world. They even helped fix up British firms—two of which are now the target of a federal fraud probe—by hosting a pair of events in London. Companies large and small willingly paid the steep delegate fees: $2,000 to $3,000 for a two-day conference, with sponsorships running from $7,000 to a $12,000 “platinum” option. “We never imagined when we were planning our Forum that it would become so central to the current reconstruction of Iraq,” boasted New-Fields CEO Samir Farajallah.
The Unlicensed Gatekeeper
The firm’s corporate dwelling, a shared, two-level space on the sixth floor of a glossy building five blocks east of the White House, is temporary and seemingly empty. Guests are greeted by a stern employee of the office leasing company perched behind a wide, cumbersome desk that blocks access to the bright, distinctly-modern, workrooms beyond it. Three unannounced visits from a National Security News Service reporter yielded three identical responses: no one from New-Fields was in. The leasing company employee, who would only identify herself as Dion, said that most New-Fields staff is located overseas—the Philippines, she thought. But when reached on the firm’s D.C.-area customer service line, project manager Carla Torres claimed that New-Fields has a Washington-based staff of approximately 100. Ms. Torres is among the handful of fast-talking women who answer New-Fields’ phones with thick Spanish accents and spell their names (Charlie, Alpha, Romeo…) using brisk military jargon. Both she and her colleague Erica Montero refused to reveal if and when New-Fields employees would be in the office, and turned down all meeting requests. Despite their assurances that “the appropriate person” would respond to numerous inquiries from the News Service, no calls were ever returned.
The token office and unwitting phone receptionists comprise a shroud of legitimacy over an operation that appears to be anything but credible. An investigation into public records with the District of Columbia Secretary of State found that New-Fields’ corporate license has been revoked on multiple occasions, most recently last September, for failing to update its filings. The firm, in other words, is not legally authorized to operate in Washington—or anywhere in the United States. According to the D.C. Attorney General’s office, operating illegally is fairly common among liquor stores or corner groceries. But for an international marketing company that claims to host “the world’s largest and most respected” deal making forums that have “become so central to the current reconstruction of Iraq”? Ms. Montero sounded equally unaware and unconcerned when probed about New-Fields’ corporate registration, promising to deliver a message to Mr. Farajallah. He did not return that or other direct requests for comment.
New-Fields’ clients contacted for this article refused to divulge details of the type or amount of business generated as a result of their participation in New-Fields events. But neither these clients, nor conference speakers and government officials who have attended past New-Fields gatherings, could provide any information on the mysterious wannabe gatekeeper. “Very, very little,” said Paul Bristol, publisher of Iraq Updates and a New-Fields media partner, when asked what he knew about the company. “In fact, I would like to know more.” Ben Lando, author of the Iraq Oil Report, covers some New-Fields events, but has never interviewed any of their staff. Sue Hanrock, director of the Department of Commerce’s Iraq Task Force and a former advisor to the Iraqi Ministry of Trade, attended a Rebuilding Iraq summit in 2004 because “it seemed like a good thing for [the department] to participate in.” But when asked what information she had about the company that invited her, her response was brief. “Nothing, really,” she said.
For some delegates, the obscurity of New-Fields Exhibitions led to broken promises. Last fall, Rob Foster, marketing manager for the oil and gas drill manufacturer American Augers, was offered a delegate spot at New-Fields’ First Annual Iraq Oil & Gas Summit. Mr. Foster not only signed up for an exhibit; he doled out the $10,000 sponsor fee to plaster American Augers’ logo on the summit’s informational materials. But when he arrived in Houston, Mr. Foster was so disappointed that he left the summit a day early. “The event was not delivered as billed,” he says. “They promised a lot of qualified customer types who didn’t show up because of visa issues.” The Iraqis in attendance were mostly “ex-officials” who were now living in other countries “where they could easily gain entry into the States.”
Despite these criticisms, New-Fields appears to have acquired a steady client base. Ms. Torres says that the firm continues hosting Iraq conferences “based on the requests of past participants.” Major corporations—KBR and Bechtel among them—have been repeat attendees, while Forbes reports that “petroleum industry investors were buzzing” at May’s oil summit in Houston. “We were very satisfied with New-Fields,” says Line Beaulieu, who attended two Iraq defense industry summits on behalf of Ultra Electronics, a Montreal-based company that sells military radios. “They provided quality guests and decision makers who we wanted to meet with,” she says. Ms. Torres admits that New-Fields has had problems delivering Iraqi officials due to visa issues—which might be a reason the firm is expanding its efforts by sending a defense industry delegation to Baghdad in July. The delegation, which has been subtly advertised in the Washington Post, charges $40,000 for travel and a week of meetings with “top Iraqi military experts.”
“A Growing Industry”
With the $51 billion in U.S. reconstruction appropriations finally drying up, and Iraqi officials cash-strapped by low oil prices, rebuilding Iraq will rely increasingly on the private sector, says Samir Sumaida’ie, Iraq’s ambassador to the U.S. “The need for reconstruction [in Iraq] is so great that it’s attracting a lot of international companies,” he says. “There is a very strong effort to shift these projects to the private sector—we believe that this will be the major emphasis in the coming years.” As security improvements temper companies’ concerns over the risks of doing business in Iraq, unfinished projects in housing, communications, electricity, health care and energy abound the country’s urban and rural areas. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that infrastructure overhauls could offer $300 billion in additional contracts, and in March, Oil Minister Hussain al-Shahristani said that Iraq’s oil sector will require a $50 billion investment over the next five years. The need comes as the first crude exports from the autonomous Kurdistan region has sparked a frenzy of competition over rights to comb the world’s third largest oil fields—90 percent of which remain unexplored. “Considering its existing and potential wealth,” says the Department of Commerce’s 2009 Country Guide, “Iraq is likely to be among the fastest growing and most lucrative mid-sized markets in the world.”
As corporations replace taxpayers as Baghdad’s primary benefactors, the role of mediator will shift from U.S. procurement officers to private fixers like New-Fields. Ms. Beaulieu, from Ultra Electronics, saw the number of exhibitors at New-Fields 2009 Iraq Aviation and Defense Summit quadruple from the year before. And according to the Department of Commerce, other marketers have leapt into the fray, facilitating their own trade events on Iraq. “They charge a lot of money for the same thing that the government has almost done for free,” says a Department spokeswoman. “It’s a growing industry.”
Only one of New-Fields conferences has actually taken place in Iraq—in the relative calm of northern Kurdistan. Spotlighting a New-Fields oil summit, an Al Jazeera report demonstrated Iraqis’ outrage at seeing their country’s future being auctioned off 6,000 miles away. “Other countries are stealing our fortunes. Everyday we hear that oil gets exported for billions of dollars but we don’t see anything here on the ground,” Sabah Hamza Abbas told correspondent Dan Nolan. “We want [these conferences] to be held here in Iraq, before all Iraqis, not before the Americans,” lamented Hadi Al-Baghdadi. Waves of public protests met oil minister Al-Shahristani’s plan to provide foreign companies with a stake in Iraqi exports, giving fresh credence to the notion that Iraq was a war waged irrevocably for oil. Meanwhile, despite operating in a more secure environment, many of these companies continue to hire cheap third-world labor instead of the quarter of Iraqis living in abject poverty. The resulting image of corporate exploitation is a pernicious one—and could pose significant implications for U.S. policy.
Public and congressional inquiries continue to examine the now-infamous role of U.S. corporations in Iraq. But for the obscure trade show operator whose enterprise is selling access to billion-dollar business deals with the corruption-plagued Iraqi government, the diminishing role of U.S. authorities in the resource-rich nation makes that access more valuable, and more profitable.