Iraqi Kurdistan is a Gift Horse We Have Been Looking In the Mouth

We keep saying that UK Plc should help its economic prospects by exporting our goods and services and investing in places with a pent-up demand for quality.

One such place, which has been impossible to access for many years but is now increasingly open to us, is the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

I know that the very word Iraq summons up images of war and danger but this is definitely not the case for its Kurdistan Region which I have just visited with a cross-party delegation of MPs.

We criss-crossed the scenic and hospitable Region to meet ministers, business people and build a fuller picture of Kurdistan, past, present and future.

The past is tragic. From the time that the Kurds became an involuntary part of Iraq in the last century they have suffered discrimination which became genocide, most notably under Saddam Hussein. Nearly 200,000 Kurds were killed as part of a systematic effort to wipe them off the face of the earth.

The best known example of this is the use of chemical weapons in 1988 against Halabja where 5,000 people were instantly killed. We saw the windswept and still bleak plains of Germiyan where many villages were destroyed to force farmers into cities where they could be better corralled and killed.

Our group is supporting a campaign for the UK to recognise this formally as genocide. The point is to signal that justice will be done and that the Kurds will not be abandoned again. Details can be found here.

Britain is widely respected in Kurdistan because we have stood by them before. When they rose up against Saddam in 1991 we instituted a no-fly zone so that they could not be bombed and strafed as they fled in biblical scenes to the mountains. This forced Saddam to retreat and allowed the Kurds to rebuild their society. This became even more possible when Saddam was eventually ousted in 2003.

They have used this freedom without fear to embark on a long journey towards democracy and an open economy. It will take time to overcome the legacy of war-driven politics and economics but they have opened many universities, their services and living standards are ever increasing. They have had free and fair elections and, almost uniquely in the Middle East, an Opposition.

Above all, the region is safe. No foreign soldiers have been attacked and there have been no terrorist incidents for five years. Foreigners are welcome and the facilities for them are fast improving.

They are stuck with some awkward neighbours such as Iran but they have put great effort into successfully deepening relations with Turkey which could help resolve its own Kurdish issues and be a strategic partner for the export of its plentiful oil and gas reserves to Turkey and beyond that to Europe and the UK.

They don’t choose their neighbours but they are very keen to choose their friends. And Britain is definitely one of these. Their second language is English, many leaders spent years in exile here and are keen to learn from us. Most of the postgraduate students on their government funded scholarship programme choose to study here which is a great fillip for our higher education system. The first ever visit by sixth-formers, from Suffolk, has just taken place.

Our delegation met the President, Massoud Barzani, who told us of the many opportunities for British firms in oil, gas and, as he put it, “you name it.”

Iraqi Kurdistan is currently undergoing a massive boom, a veritable gold rush and its leaders are asking our companies and public institutions to lend a hand to help them create a sustainable economy and better public administration. It is a gift horse which we have been looking in the mouth. It’s time for all those with the relevant expertise and products to take a gander at Kurdistan.

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