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Orange takes Iraq to arbitration over its Korek stake
Orange has launched arbitration proceedings against Iraq, with the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID). The dispute is over Orange's $400 million investment in Korek Telecom, a mobile phone operator based in Iraq's Kurdistan region, in its capital city Erbil. Korek is Iraq's third-largest operator. Kuwait's logistics company Agility Public Warehousing, which had been involved with financing Korek since 2007, has taken a similar but separate action.
"Orange confirms that having failed to find an agreement with the Iraqi State in the matter of the expropriation of its investment in Korek Telecom, it has launched an arbitration proceeding against the Iraqi State," an Orange spokesperson told Light Reading.
Orange and Agility together agreed to take a 44% stake in Korek in 2011, paying $810 million, with a call option to acquire a majority holding. A number of European operators had ventured overseas, to balance slower growth nearer home.
Iraq's telecoms regulator, the National Communications and Media Commission, wrote to both investors in late 2013 saying that Korek's shareholding structure would revert to its pre-2011 structure, arguing Orange and Agility had not fulfilled an obligation to offer full national network coverage or to list the company on the Iraqi stock market.
The regulator wrote to Orange and Agility three weeks before the first date at which the two companies could have exercised their call option. Orange's chief executive Stéphane Richard had said his company was keen to do so. Local investors received full control of the Kurdish telco in March 2019, with Orange and Agility not receiving compensation. Korek's managing director, Sirwan Barzani, now owns a 75% stake in the company.
Birzani is a nephew of the Kurdistan Regional Government's former president, Massoud Barzani, and first cousin of his successor, Nechirvan Birzani. The head of Iraq's communications regulator, Ali Naser Al-Khwildi, and his wife Zahira stayed in a house in north London's Wembley area until 2018 which Korek's senior director, Raymond Rahmeh, purchased for £830,000 in cash in 2014 through an intermediary, according to the Financial Times.
A court filing in the US claimed the house purchase was made improperly to influence the regulator. Orange sent the Iraqi government a notice of dispute in May 2019. After that, the two sides engaged in tentative discussions to find an amicable solution, but these did not meet with success. Arbitration proceedings generally last several years. The ICSID is located in Washington DC, and is a branch of the World Bank.
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