BEIRUT: Lebanese companies and Middle East Airlines are continuing to operate in Iraq’s Irbil as other foreign firms evacuate and international carriers cancel flights to the city over mounting security fears due to an offensive by Islamist militants.
Expatriate employees are leaving their posts at Lebanese firms operating in Irbil and other parts of Iraq’s Kurdistan as battles rage between Kurdish forces and militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), a leading Lebanese businessman in the region said.“None of my hotels and companies has closed down since the battles between ISIS and the Kurdish fighters. The fighting is 50 kilometers away from Irbil, and we have not yet felt the brunt of the war,” Jacques Sarraf, who owns two hotels as well as construction and contracting firms in Kurdistan, told The Daily Star Friday.
“But I told some of the expatriate employees to go home if they want. This is up to them,” Sarraf said, adding that foreign workers at his companies, as well as at other Lebanese firms in the region, had fled.
There are more than 50 Lebanese companies operating in Irbil and some parts of Kurdistan, mostly in the hospitality sector, trade and construction. Sarraf said all of them were still operating despite the war.
Middle East Airlines said it was still making daily trips to Irbil despite news that some international airlines had suspended all flights to Kurdistan.
“We are still flying to Irbil and there is no decision yet to halt the flights at the moment,” a spokesperson of MEA told The Daily Star.
“We are still monitoring the situation and will take a decision regarding our flights to Irbil if the situation escalates,” MEA chairman Mohammad Hout told The Daily Star.
The U.S. federal aviation authority banned American planes from flying over Iraq, while several carriers including British Airways, Etihad Airways and Turkish Airlines have halted flights to the city.
International oil producers including Afren, Chevron and ExxonMobil have also either suspended operations or evacuated foreign staff from the Kurdistan region.
Sarraf said the two hotels he owns in Irbil have seen a drop in reservations since the fighting began.
“Our room occupancy in the hotels is now 60 percent, but we used to have more than 80 percent occupancy in the same season,” he said.
Sarraf did not rule out drastic measures if the war drew closer.
“Other Lebanese businessmen and I are watching the events very closely and will only reduce our operations if the war draws closer to the cities,” Sarraf said.