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Business

Iraqi Expat Plays Matchmaker for German Firms

With 20 years of business experience in Germany and Iraq, Iraqi expatriate Gelan Khulusi works to bring small companies from the two countries together.

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Once the investments start pouring in, there will be fewer mannequins like this collecting dust.

Gelan Khulusi sits with a designer in his office putting the finishing touches on his new Internet homepage. In the same breath, he turns to another colleague and discusses the latest requests coming in from companies in Germany and Iraq. It is just another day in the life for Khulusi, who runs Midan, Arabic for "marketplace," a new non-profit organization that is playing matchmaker between German and Iraqi businesses.

"This just came in from an Iraqi investment firm," the 40-year-old says. "They’re looking for a construction partner. And what they want is cooperation. They’ve got property to offer ... and qualified personnel."

Since he founded Midan in July, Khulusi has been receiving faxes like this at his Cologne-based office supply company everyday.

Khulusi left Iraq in 1980 and has been in Germany for more than 20 years now. A graduate of a German business school, he’s maintained his business ties with Iraq throughout. Now, he’s seeking to take what he learned and apply it to small and medium-sized German and Iraqi businesses who want to work together during the reconstruction of the Gulf country.

Mr. Manners

Since the considerable differences in cultural and business etiquette between the two countries can often break seemingly sure-fire deals, the acumen of consultants like Khulusi is in high demand. It’s often the small things that businessmen need to watch out for.

"One unpleasant custom, especially in Southern Germany, is that people tend to tap their partners on the shoulder after they close a deal," he says. "In Arab culture, that’s considered a negative sign. It means, ‘You dummy, I just took you to the cleaners.’"

Other customs, courtesies in Germany, often become pitfalls in Iraq. "For example, in an Arab country, you don’t ask your business partner, ‘So, how’s your wife doing?’" Instead, Khulusi suggests, German businessmen should ask how the potential business partner’s family is doing.

Getting Germans to invest

But these days, Khulusi has even bigger concerns than cultural nuances. He’s currently drumming up interest among German companies to invest in Iraq -- and there’s plenty of opportunity for companies willing to take the risk.

"Iraq is like a sponge that’s been lying in the sun for 30 years," he says. "Now a few drops of water are being poured on it – they’ll immediately be absorbed without obstacle. The Midan Organization is also in the position in Iraq right now that, when we go to the chamber of commerce and tell them, ‘Listen, I have this and this and this,’ the answer is almost always, ‘Great, when can we start?’"

Historically, Germany has been among Iraq's biggest trading partners. In 1982, Germany exported €4 billion worth of products to Iraq. And even during the embargo, when contracts for exports and services were controlled by the U.N., German companies still export €400 million ($436 million) worth of products each year.

Security concerns hinder deals

But times are different now, and in postwar Iraq, German businesses have been slow in investing. Many are concerned about the lack of security and the almost daily terror attacks that have left hundreds dead. Khulusi understands their fears. That’s why he wants to serve as the middleman and remove the more dangerous part of the businesses by handling negotiations for them in Iraq.

A McDonald’s for Baghdad?

One start-up project Khulusi is working on for a German company is a fast food restaurant modeled after McDonalds that would be financed by German investors but operated by Iraqi workers in central Baghdad. The main investor, a restaurant manager, already has experience in other Arab countries, but he’s seeking Khulusi’s help in tapping the Iraqi market. But even Khulusi concedes that it may be difficult to line up enough investors given the current lack of security. Still, the entrepreneur says he wants Khulusi to do his bidding.

"It’s also because a lot in Iraq has to do with personal relationships," the entrepreneur says. "That’s just how it is with Arab countries."

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