Immigration Order Complicates U.S. Businesses’ Plans in the Middle East

Immigration Order Complicates U.S. Businesses’ Plans in the Middle East
Sat Feb 4, 2017 10:51:39

As tensions rise with nations covered by President Trump’s immigration order, American companies are watching anxiously to gauge the order’s potential impact on business prospects, particularly in Iraq and Iran.

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Top American energy, military and industrial companies have helped rebuild parts of Iraq since the war there began in 2003, and Iraqi leaders are irritated that their country, which is working closely with the United States to battle the Islamic State, was one of seven predominantly Muslim nations included in the 90-day immigration ban imposed by the order.

Some lawmakers in Iraq have advocated a reciprocal ban on United States citizens holding Iraqi visas, including contractors. But senior Iraqi officials have so far opposed such a move on the grounds that it would probably hurt vital oil exploration and production efforts.

Nevertheless, some oil executives are concerned that the travel restrictions could incite hostility toward Americans working in Iraq or prompt other countries to retaliate with their own visa restrictions.

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“It’s tit for tat,” said Dragan Vuckovic, president of Mediterranean International, a Houston-based service company that operates across the Middle East and North Africa. Mr. Vuckovic said he had been scheduled to travel to Iraq soon to speak to officials in the country’s energy ministry but had changed his plans.

“I have a visa but they may not let me into the country in retaliation to Trump’s travel ban,” he said. “I’m not going over there for nothing. It’s a very bad situation.”

For American companies exploring business with Iran, the immigration order is just one new complication.

The Treasury on Friday imposed economic sanctions on individuals and companies that it said were connected to Iran’s test of a new ballistic missile last weekend. The new measures do not add to the many existing sanctions that already limit American business deals in Iran, but they will increase concerns at companies like Boeing and General Electric that efforts to reopen trade there may be caught in the crossfire.

The biggest deal that could be at risk over time is Boeing’s plan to sell $16.6 billion in commercial airplanes. The company, which announced the deal in December, has tried to tiptoe around Mr. Trump’s calls for a tougher stance toward Iran by emphasizing that the plane sales would support thousands of American jobs.

The deal was made possible when President Barack Obama lifted an earlier round of sanctions after Iran agreed to an accord that curtailed its nuclear activities. Mr. Trump has criticized the nuclear agreement as weak, and he wrote on Twitter on Friday that Iran was “playing with fire” with the missile test. Iran’s leaders “don’t appreciate how ‘kind’ President Obama was to them,” he added. “Not me!”

G.E., which would supply some of the aircraft engines under the Boeing deal, and AT&T are among other big companies seeking stronger business ties in Iran.

G.E.’s oil and gas and power generation divisions are active in Iran, and the company also has substantial deals in Iraq, as do most of America’s largest military contractors.

Loren B. Thompson, an analyst at the Lexington Institute, a research group financed by Boeing and other military contractors, said that given how closely Iraq was working with the Pentagon, it was hard to believe that the strain caused by Mr. Trump’s immigration ban would threaten any contracts to provide Iraq with military equipment.

The tensions with Iran, he said, could actually prompt even bigger American arms sales to countries like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain that also are worried about Iran.