Have you heard the one about two Christians, two Jews and two Muslims in a hotel in Iraqi Kurdistan? None of us on the recent parliamentary delegation there devised a witty answer but we did establish that all are welcome in this beautiful region.
The sixth fact-finding report in five years of the all-party parliamentary group outlines considerable progress and examines obstacles on Kurdistan’s journey from genocide and poverty to pluralism and prosperity.
The six members of the delegation were Conservative MPs Robert Halfon and Stephen Metcalfe, Labour MP Fabian Hamilton and myself plus Hanzala Malik MSP and Umbreen Khalid from the Scottish Parliament’s Cross Party Group on the Middle East and South Asia.
Landlocked Kurdistan has long been at the often violent vortex of competing empires. We are always told that it is a tough neighbourhood. When I started going there in 2006 I heard about petulant Turks deliberately delaying trucks of perishable goods at the frontier. A day or two in the baking sun ruins a cargo of pomegranates.
The trade with Turkey is now worth billions with now hundreds of Turkish companies trading in Kurdistan. In a massive symbol of the change, the Turkish prime minister recently joined the Kurdistan region president in opening the swanky new airport in Erbil which has the fifth longest runway in the world and take any type of aircraft.
The developing relationship with Turkey could assist its Kurds and be a lifeline to the region, especially now that the once vague lure of substantial oil and gas reserves is real. The Kurdistan region is in the top ten for oil reserves. It also has gas that could supply its own domestic market, that of Turkey and beyond for a century. With pipelines from Kurdistan to Turkey the region becomes part of the European energy security equation.
Sadly, relations with the rest of Iraq have deteriorated from the high point in 2005 when a federal constitution was agreed by over 80% of the people in a referendum. It enshrined the autonomy of the Kurdistan region and promised a pathway to resolving various disputes over the exact boundaries of the region and the terms of oil production and revenue sharing.
There has been negligible progress on these issues, although the Kurds play a major role in the federal government and put together the deal that allowed a cabinet to be formed after nearly a year of stasis. This drives debate about how the Iraqi Kurds can secure devo max or embrace some form of independence.
In the meantime, the Kurds are getting on with recovering from decades of poverty and isolation. Since their heroic uprising against Saddam Hussein in 1991, they have decided to embrace democracy and a more open economy. Living standards have soared, new housing and services are coming online. Electricity is nearly continuous compared to a very few hours per day in the rest of Iraq. It is certainly a destination for well-heeled business people judging by the number of new five star hotels and luxury housing.
All that is welcome but we also found that public services such as health can be basic when we visited a hospital in the capital, Erbil. The Kurds are very well aware of this and are enthusiastically encouraging links with the UK health sector and universities to overcome such backwardness. They are enthusiastically encouraging foreign investment and trade, not least with the UK.
But their economy is creaking under the pressure of a top-heavy state with insufficient capacity and skills. It is, above all, far too large for a healthy economy with about 80% of the workforce on the government payroll.
Shifting the balance and growing independent institutions are vital to deepening the democratic process. The region has fair and free elections and an opposition, but needs to engage more with a youthful population which cannot live on the successful liberation struggle waged by their parents and grandparents.
The need for reform is understood widely in Kurdish politics but requires greater stability. Kurdistan is much safer than the rest of Iraq, which is why it is seen as a lucrative destination for foreign capital. But change is difficult and the Kurds welcome foreign expertise and experience in furthering reform and building a sustainable economic model that doesn’t entirely depend on energy resources.
They want to develop their plentiful but neglected agricultural base which Saddam effectively killed off a generation ago. They can develop a tourist industry. They are investing heavily in education and links with the UK are speeding up with two or more universities considering the possibility of setting up campuses in Kurdistan. The first group ever of sixth-formers, from Suffolk, just visited the region. Suddenly Kurdistan is on the map.
Gary Kent is the Administrator of the All-Party Parliamentary group on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq.