Joint statement by parliamentary participants in APPG virtual delegation to Kurdistan Region in Iraq. October 2020.

Covid has exposed the accumulated flaws of Kurdistan, as it has more widely, but more British political, public, and private engagement can help equip it for the future for the mutual benefit of its people and UK interests.

Covid is convulsing the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, which is dangerously reliant on oil, demand for which may fade longer term. Fundamental economic transformation is vital in Kurdistan. A more reliable and just relationship with Iraq is also needed. The UK is well-placed to provide technical support and political engagement that recognises Kurdistan’s important role in Middle East security, stability, and reform.

Oil accounts for over 90% of its income and has halved in months. Non-oil trade revenues have been cut to ribbons. State employees receive lower salaries that are regularly in arrears, vital public investments are stalled while poverty and unemployment have increased.

Kurdistan depends on fiscal transfers from Baghdad that should underpin the federal compact that led them to rejoin Iraq in 2003. The federal deal is unfinished and promises to resolve the status of disputed territories and enshrine reliable revenue-sharing in law have not been honoured.

However, Kurdistan and Iraq now both have reformist leaders. Iraqi Prime Minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi is tackling vested interests that hold Iraq back and which also detest the Kurds. The two governments have reached confidence-building understandings, but a permanent reset based on law and the Iraqi constitution should be the goal.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) seeks internal reform to diversify an economy based on big state patronage networks, a small private sector, and oil. They want to develop agriculture, tourism, and light industry. Their plentiful gas can be exported to Iraq and Europe and reduce their reliance on Iran and Russia respectively.

Kurdistan is decent, progressive, beautiful, and hospitable place that still hosts a million people who have fled conflict for sanctuary there. Kurdistan’s importance to our national security was illustrated when Deash erupted in 2014 and captured Iraq’s second city, Mosul. The Kurds then prevented Daesh seizing Kirkuk and its Peshmerga held the line at great costs for years when Daesh turned on Kurdistan. If Kurdistan had been overwhelmed, its oil could have fuelled Daesh expansionism and genocidal campaigns for years.

The Kurds saved the Middle East from disaster. They did this in self-defence but also because they espouse progressive values of secularism, religious moderation, women’s rights, and democracy. Those values are needed to challenge the continuing appeal of extremism. But Daesh is regrouping in the vast security blind spots in the disputed territories between Kurdistani and Iraqi forces, which urgently need to co-ordinate their efforts. Continued British efforts to unify and professionalise the Peshmerga are also vital.

Kurdistan is a small place with punch in the heart of the Middle East. It was, for instance, instrumental in pausing conflict between Turkey and the PKK almost a decade back. A political solution to that long war is necessary given that Turkey, in concert with Iran, is heavily bombarding PKK targets within Kurdistan.

The UK government’s integrated review of foreign, defence, security and development policy should recognise that a changing Middle East needs a strong Kurdistan in partnership with a strong Iraq.

Kurdistan also allies itself to the UK, whose services, standards, goods, and experience are respected. The UK Foreign Secretary should visit Kurdistan and invite the KRG leadership to London on a long promised official visit.

Such meetings can deepen the bilateral relationship and unleash relatively inexpensive and focused government measures to increase the KRG’s reform capacity.

Most urgently, Kurdistan needs supplies from its allies of medical kit such as ventilators to relieve its strained health sector and save lives from Covid.

Kurdistanis have endured war and two genocides for decades. UK funding for mental health projects and destigmatising mental illness could boost the resilience of our allies. Kurdistani universities have blossomed in a generation but few are world class. We suggest that the UK sends experts on a fact-finding mission to assess how the UK can encourage quality higher education. The Kurdistani Parliament’s influence can be enhanced by exchanges and skills-training.

A second official UK trade mission to Kurdistan could scope opportunities for private investors and public institutions. Possible projects in oil services, gas, minerals, solar power, wind power, health, film production, environmental projects, and agriculture play to British strengths and could stop us lagging behind European countries.

Companies must win contracts on their own merits, but the UK can facilitate projects through UK Export Finance, encouraging direct commercial flights, improving the visa system for Kurdistani visitors to the UK, many for commercial purposes, and liberalising the official travel advice in line with better security in Kurdistan.

Covid has exposed the accumulated flaws of Kurdistan, as it has more widely, but more British political, public, and private engagement can help equip it for the future for the mutual benefit of its people and UK interests.

Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP, Feryal Clark MP, Alicia Kearns MP, and Jack Lopresti MP.

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