Roberto Romulo, a former Philippines Foreign Secretary, is spearheading his country's efforts to see its skilled workers play a major role in the Iraqi reconstruction effort. In mid-April, Romulo was appointed by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to chair the Public-Private Task Force to Coordinate Philippines' Participation in the Reconstruction of Iraq. That's a mouthful, but Romulo has a big job ahead of him: His group hopes to open an office in Kuwait City by the end of June in an effort to help drum up business for Philippine companies and skilled workers. At a minimum, Romulo expects to see 30,000 skilled Filipino workers involved in Iraqi reconstruction.
Longer term, he hopes that a variety of businesses, from furniture companies to pharmaceutical distributors, can establish presences in Iraq and Kuwait. BusinessWeek Asia Regional Editor Mark L. Clifford recently spoke to Romulo shortly after the former Secretary returned from a trip to Kuwait. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.
Q: What's the strategy for taking part in rebuilding Iraq?
A: There's a need for skilled labor, and we have about 1.5 million people working in the Middle East -- about 900,000 are in Saudi Arabia and there are about 50,000 in Kuwait. There are about 6 million overseas Filipinos, including about 2 million in the U.S. The best estimate is that they repatriate $7 billion to $8 billion a year.
We have a track record with the big contractors -- Bechtel Group, Parsons Corp., Kellogg Brown & Root, and Fluor Corp. (FLR), and all of the prime contractors. We've been meeting in Washington and in Kuwait. The most recent example of major Philippine involvement in an overseas construction project was building the Guantanamo Bay facility [to house detainees from the war in Afghanistan]. They needed it right away. Within one week, we had people on a plane and on the way to Guantanamo.
We have names of 1 million workers, from skilled mechanical engineers to crane operators, who have passports and are ready to go. Priority for jobs will go to Iraqis. We have to bear in mind that there are 6 million unemployed Iraqis, and they are known for their work ethic. But when it comes to skilled labor, we definitely have the value-added.
Q: Would the Philippines' participation in rebuilding Iraq be payback for supporting the Bush Administration's Iraq policy?
A: Everybody [in the Philippines] says this and wishes for it. But the Coalition of the Willing is 50 countries. This obsession that Uncle Sam will give us a payback for supporting them is a little too euphoric on [some people's] part. I think we can do this on our own.
There's a $100 billion potential reconstruction cost over five years. There's no way the U.S. is going to fund that. You're looking at oil flow of $20 billion [annually]. That's Iraqi money and Iraq will manage that, so it's important that we have a long-term relationship with Iraq. We're looking to establish and fund a private-sector presence. We're setting up an office in Kuwait and people who are based there will go back and forth to Baghdad.
We don't presume to be a prime contractor. We expect to be sub- or sub-subcontractors. This is where my task force is trying to be the middleman. Our big boys are small by international standards.
Q: When will all this get started?
A: It's not going to happen until we're comfortable that our people are safe. My guess is 90 days, most likely 120 to 150 days. Things have to be cleared up. One problem is housing. We're ready to house workers on boats and we'll bring the boats. The next challenge, because of the security situation, is to bring them to the work location.
Q: How much will all this be worth?
A: Beats the hell out of me. Instead of a hit-and-run situation taking advantage of American money, we have to look at this in the long term. We need to maintain a relationship in the Middle East. We're trying to get the businessmen more focused so that we can take advantage of the opportunities.