Nurses and doctors from Newcastle and Gateshead have been visiting the Kurdistan Region in Iraq for nearly a decade. In their holiday time, they have been doing knee and hip operations that are currently beyond the health system there and have literally put many Kurds back on their own two feet.
This initiative was the brainchild of a Kurdish-British professor, Deiary Kader who worked in Newcastle and part of a growing network of relations between Kurds and Brits.
UK soldiers are also directly training thousands of the Peshmerga, the Kurdistani army that did so much to beat our common enemy, the so-called Islamic State. These monsters horrifically executed some British citizens and carried out genocide in Iraqi and Syrian lands they once occupied outside Kurdistan. And their followers wish us harm on our own streets as we saw tragically in London and Manchester.
Companies like Jaguar Land Rover are selling cars and there are great opportunities for British companies and institutions such as universities to set up shop, make money, and put Kurdistan on its feet.
The altruism of Professor Kader’s Newcastle-Gateshead Medical Volunteers is an inspiring story from the North East but this is also about protecting our own interests. Instability and injustice in the Middle East never stays there but spreads.
It is not commonly known but the Kurds like and admire the Brits. Many of their leaders lived and studied here and have British passports. English is their second language and several of their universities teach in English only.
They want our commerce, culture, and political support in a troubled region. We did the right thing when two million Kurds were forced to flee to the freezing mountains in 1991 and were saved by Sir John Major’s no-fly zone that prevented Saddam Hussein’s jets from bombing them into oblivion.
They then set up a new autonomous region that embraced democracy and rebuilt society. They did so much to make Iraq work after the overthrow of Saddam and Iraq and Kurdistan are now in a much better place than for years.
And the Kurds are reliable and able allies in building a peaceful, prosperous and pluralistic Middle East. Kurdistan is mainly Muslim but moderate and deeply devoted to protecting non-Muslim minorities. Christians live there as equals, as I have seen in their ancient churches and cathedrals. Women’s rights are also a priority. All that is a great gain for the whole world.
Kurds have far to go in deepening democracy and reforming their economy so it is less reliant on one volatile commodity, oil, and on huge state employment. They can boost private sector jobs in their tremendous agricultural potential and in tourism with the help of British entrepreneurs.
They are also keen to learn from us. I have taken many MPs there to meet their MPs who recently asked us to help train them and have established an all-party parliamentary group on the UK, which shows their deep esteem for us.
British MPs, including North Tyneside’s Mary Glindon, recently proposed several practical measures in a Commons debate to deepen bilateral links. One of the most important is direct flights to Kurdistan that British Airways is pondering.
That will become easier if the Foreign Office relaxes its advice about only going there for essential purposes. Kurdistan is the safest part of Iraq and foreigners are respected and protected. Amending the formal advice can encourage more Brits to see this lovely, safe, and hospitable place for themselves.
Professor Kader and his medical colleagues from the North East are great humanitarians in the best British traditions. But it’s about much more than charity. A more dynamic, efficient and educated Kurdistan suits our hard-headed interests too.
We should proudly celebrate our many links with a decent and pro-British people and especially today which is Newroz, the Kurdish New Year and the beginning of Spring.
Gary Kent is secretary of the UK’s all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, has been there 31 times in 13 years, and writes in a personal capacity. @garykent
This article originally appeared in the Newcastle Journal on 21 March 2019.