Conflicts in the Middle East matter to all countries that rely on a delicate skein of commerce, including energy. And nor should we be morally apathetic about the scenes on our screens.
The best response is to find allies who want the Middle East to become the fount of wisdom and scientific advance it was when Europe was tearing itself to pieces in the Middle Ages.
Iraq is the beating heart of the Middle East but is in bloody turmoil as demonstrators in Baghdad face death and injury in seeking justice and reducing Iranian interference. But things are entirely different in the Kurdistan Region, as I have witnessed on five visits with the all-party parliamentary group, which has just elected me its Chair.
My central claim is that Kurdistan is one of the few places in the Middle East that has the capacity for internal change and external emulation. Kurdistan is more stable and more prosperous because their leaders have had longer to overcome the vices of Saddam’s long and brutal dictatorship. Saddam’s forces were evicted in an uprising in 1991 from most of Kurdistan, which was then protected by Sir John Major’s no-fly zone until what they widely describe as the liberation of Iraq in 2003.
They embraced parliamentary democracy and education with new universities but had to overcome their own toxic legacy. Kurdistan was initially divided into two administrative regions under the main parties which conducted a civil war that was ended by external diplomatic intervention.
The Kurds’ desire to work with the West is sustained by many leaders who were exiled here and often carry British passports, and speak with British accents. Four universities teach entirely in English, the unofficial second language. This affinity led most students on a foreign scholarship programme to plump for UK universities.
The inescapable fact that affects their fate is an unenviable geographical position, nestled between Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq which have been hostile in the past. Their political culture is often blind and unkind to the Kurds.
Yet, the Iraqi Kurds have become well-versed in upholding their integrity through adroit management of regional and international relations. They seek to improve relations with the government in Baghdad through fully implementing the federal constitution agreed by the people in 2005. Sadly, that has largely been neglected by leaders in Baghdad who find a formally binational Iraq of equals difficult to swallow and often cleave to traditional command and control strategies.
Kurdistan wants good relations with its neighbours but also wants to freely choose their allies. We should be immensely proud of the fact that the Kurdistan Regional Government identifies the UK as a partner of choice.
The UK and the KRG have also agreed a Reform Partnership. One of its aims is to professionalise and unify the Peshmerga, which remains divided for historic reasons between the two parties rather than being a fully united army accountable to only the government.
However, I praise the Peshmerga and the KRG for successfully maintaining internal security and stability with a record that excels many similar countries, even the UK. Their security also underpins exemplary and natural religious moderation, tolerance and pluralism. Christians, Yazidis, Jews (mostly long gone through no fault of the Kurds) and others are equals. That is a powerful antidote to the extremism of the so-called Islamic State, which remains potent despite major territorial losses at the hands of both the Peshmerga and their Iraqi and international allies.
The immediate result of the killing of Qassem Soleimani was the demand, in a non-binding resolution from an inquorate Iraqi parliament, to expel US and other foreign troops. KRG President Nechirvan Barzani has been crystal clear that this would be unwise and undermine the fight against Isis, which is regrouping in the gap between the Peshmerga and Iraqi soldiers.
But their goal is bigger than mere survival. They embrace the UK and others because they crave vital investment, trade, and capacity-building expertise. They believe that this bolsters what should be seen as urgent reforms to diversify their economy, improve public services, tackle corruption, and boost a vibrant private sector and civil society. They also need quality further, technical, and university education.
The historic legacy makes them dangerously over-reliant on state employment and on oil and gas which they have only been able to exploit since 2006. Energy revenues account for most of their revenue, directly or from the federal Iraqi budget, and isn’t sustainable. They want to boost agriculture, tourism, and light industry. Their bounteous and beautiful countryside could drive the first two and British foreign investment can greatly help all.
Economic diversification would also encourage greater accountability, transparency, and participation by youth, the bulk of the population, and women, who are more prominent than elsewhere but not nearly enough.
The Kurds often say they don’t want to be victims and prisoners of their history and geography. But their delicate geopolitical position has a diplomatic upside. Their experience of navigating what they often dub a tough neighbourhood enables their leaders to better interact with relevant actors to de-escalate tensions and makes the KRG vital for UK foreign and security policy.
They often punch above their weight and can do so more if they get their act together and if we support them. I am urging the UK government to invite KRG leaders on an official visit to meet the Prime Minister and others and deepen and widen our good bilateral relations.