Kurdistan travelogue: beauty, safety, films, training. A personal view

Given half the population is under 20, I meet more and more Kurds who don’t recall much about the Kurdistan I first saw in 2006 and where I have just concluded my 29th visit.
So much has changed. My first delegation arrived in Erbil at a small airstrip with wooden cabins. We were greeted by the Speaker and a forest of cameras because our visit was so unusual. My positive take on Kurdistan led me to help form the APPG.

This time, the sixteenth delegation from the APPG arrived at a modern airport designed by a British company. An earlier delegation toured the airport as it was being built and its long runway inspired an MP to suggest that Top Gear go to Kurdistan. They did and their programme in 2010 praised Kurdistan’s beauty and safety to millions who watched one of the world’s most popular programmes.

There was no fanfare as we were just one of several delegations in town, including a large American trade delegation who are sussing out opportunities for trade and investment now Kurdistan is emerging from the trials of the last five terrible years.

It has never been easy to organise delegations for British MPs who have many offers of fact-finding visits elsewhere. We always try to combine newcomers with past visitors and this delegation consisted of veteran APPG Chairman Jack Lopresti MP, two novices – Labour MPs Steve Reed and Toby Perkins – and me.

It is also difficult for MPs to be away for long because the UK has a minority government plus Brexit and the Conservative leadership contest. We had just 90 hours from take off to touch down in London and made the most of it. Within hours of landing we mingled with academics, aides, aid workers and the British Consul-General at a reception at the European Technology and Training Centre. Full disclosure: I am its Deputy Chair but can say that since it was opened by Safeen Dizayee and the current German President ten years ago it has become the leading training agency in Kurdistan and has tutored thousands of civil servants.

Following a breakfast briefing with the outgoing UK Consul-General, Martyn Warr – the 8th I have met – we hit the road to Slemani. This always enables delegations to see the tremendous agricultural and tourist potential of the countryside, which defy their preconceptions, and showcases its beauty, solitude and hospitality.

Someone tweeted at me that we should Skype not fly. Sorry, but MPs must see the country first hand. You won’t learn online that foreign visitors are warmly welcomed by leaders and face no hostility whatsoever. It shows the massive disconnect between Brits who opposed the liberation of Iraq in 2003 and how it is seen in Kurdistan. Many Brits keep banging on about the invasion without bothering to examine actually-existing Iraq – the peaceful transitions from one Iraqi government to another and the success of Kurdistan speak volumes. True, the UK’s role in Iraq would be seen quite differently if British troops had, as originally planned, been able to use Kurdistan rather than Basra.

And no online conversation could replace our second visit to the Ashti camp for internally displaced people at Arbat. Among the thousands living there, we met a Sunni Arab family from Tikrit and a Yezedi family from Shingal who have been living in tents for five years. We will never forget the family who gathered around the stoical father and his twelve year old son who keep things together. Meeting them humanised the plight in ways that cannot be done remotely.

The Kurdistani authorities are doing wonders with little assistance from Baghdad. The Kurds are so generous because they have so often been displaced or refugees but urgent action is needed to allow people to go home. That means new homes and services but also a new political and security system to reassure people they are safe from Daesh and external militia.

Likewise, nothing can replace seeing the Red House museum, its record of Baathist brutality in a building designed by the East German Stasi, and its new Peshmerga museum and account of the genocide against the Yezedis.

We also visited the old Tobacco Factory in Slemani, which I first saw in 2008 as a deserted and decrepit wasteland, but which could now become a beating heart of film production in Kurdistan. That could attract international film-makers to use Kurdistan as a location and enable Kurds to tell their stories to the world. And we saw another major tourist/film attraction, the Citadel in Erbil, and the buzz of the bazaar, where we had the statutory kebabs.

Our central conclusion is that prospects for greater unity and reform, better relations with Baghdad, and increased bilateral relations with the UK are much improved after five years of near-existential crises although many roots and consequences of those crises need resolving.

We also concluded that Kurds clearly value the UK’s political and military expertise, the English language, higher education, and our quality goods and services. The Chambers of Commerce and the Prime Minister-designate, Masrour Barzani, told us they wish to see more British companies in Kurdistan.

War and economic crisis in recent years stopped most of that but, now things are beginning to look up, we need to overcome the obstacles to this in Kurdistan and in Britain. We learned much from meeting the governor of Slemani, together with the Slemani Chamber of Commerce, as well as the Chamber and the Governor in Erbil.

There is an old saying that Capital is a coward. Or at least highly cautious with many choices, and the key is confidence and stability. That will take time to re-establish but there is a willingness to make that happen. An official UK trade mission could increase the British appetite for this and identify impediments to investment. MPs will continue to argue for visa reform, easing the formal FCO travel advice, and encouraging direct flights. Bilateral relations would also be enhanced by an official visit to the UK by the new KRG President and Prime Minister.

We were honoured to meet leaders of the Kurdistani parliament and its main parties to discuss a skills transfer programme to boost the capacity of Parliament. The initiative came from Kurdistani MPs and we want to provide or facilitate expertise exchanges for our mutual benefit.

The British MPs also say that Kurdistan deserves great praise for consistent efforts to advance religious pluralism and tolerance as well as women’s rights. A Muslim-majority place committed to inclusiveness versus extremism is a great asset for the whole world.

The MPs noted that Erbil/Baghdad relations are markedly improving but respect for Kurdistani rights in a binational Iraq needs to be deepened and dependable. That and Kurdistani reform can increase security, investor confidence, and living standards.

APPG reports consistently detail Kurdistan’s need to end over-reliance on energy revenues and state employment, grow a larger private sector in agricultural, tourism and light industry sectors, and encourage innovation, enterprise and dynamism.

MPs also suggested greater efforts to encourage the participation of the younger generation and develop civil society. The keys to that are higher education and technical/vocational systems fit for purpose. That can avert brain drains and train cadres capable of building a stronger economy, and smarter political debate.

After the MPs left, I took part in a seminar organised by the Middle East Research Institute, run by my old friend Dlawer al-Alaldeen, which brought together influential people in and around government. Such robustly independent think-tanks are clearly vital to expanding civil society and it’s not surprising MERI has such a good reputation in research and providing a place where people can speak candidly.

As are quality universities. I am a visiting Professor at Soran University and went there with my friend, Nahro Zagros to lecture on Brexit to academics who clearly follow the issue in depth.

I also spoke to old friends about relations between Kurdistan and the UK. History hangs heavily over such discussions. Over the years I have often heard about Sykes-Picot. Kurdish divisions and Turkish strength proved most important. But I am worried about untrue conspiracy theories concerning the alleged importance of BP in Iraq’s seizure of Kirkuk.

I also picked up a new awareness that the great powers were too late in providing credible alternatives to the referendum and that the One Iraq policy is best described as an all-Iraq policy, a useful variant of the phrase about the need for a strong KRG within a unified Iraq.

The increasing seniority of our diplomats in Erbil and the UK’s hard work on Peshmerga reform and our wider Reform Partnership underlines the importance of Kurdistan in British foreign policy. Obviously, as is true elsewhere, Britain is bigger in Kurdistan than Kurdistan is in the UK.

This drives APPG efforts to highlight Kurdistan as a beacon of tolerance, moderation and increasing dynamism but that must be anchored in realism about the past, present and future of a place I have seen survive and thrive. As I say as we go from one meeting to another, Ba Broin – let’s go.

Gary Kent

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