Let’s remember our allies

We are anxiously consumed by Covid at home but its impact on our old allies abroad also affects us.

Covid is tearing the economic guts out of oil-producing countries such as the Kurdistan Region in Iraq because global business and flights have been slashed along with demand for oil and its price.

Oil prices may see-saw but consumers are now moving to using fewer carbons as we build back greener to tackle climate change. Oil-producing countries should find new ways of earning a crust. Global oil giants have cottoned on to this and want to go low carbon or embrace renewable energy.

Yet, spare a thought for countries on a cliff-edge of falling and fading oil revenues, which have accounted for nearly all their income. Kurdistan’s oil is many centuries old but was only fully exploited after the demise of the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein who had no truck with Kurds having oil as he sought to keep them under his thumb.

The new oil sector they created from scratch in this century transformed life for Kurdistan’s people. It also gave them a greater resilience that really mattered when they resisted the so-called Islamic State (Isis), whose fanatics hunted us down like dogs here.

The Kurds were at the pincer of efforts that broke Isis, which initially came within 15 miles of their capital, Erbil, a cosmopolitan city I call my second home.

If Kurdistan’s defence force, the Peshmerga, hadn’t held the line then Isis would have grabbed more land, oil, airports and their genocide would have persisted and spread. Our military forces would have been more involved.

Kurds fought for their own homeland but also secured a victory for civilisation. The vicious Isis caliphate was liberated but Isis is now regrouping in the large physical gap between Kurdistan and Iraq where the two governments have old and bitter land disputes.

The terror cult can be better fought if Erbil and Baghdad resolve their differences and allow the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Army to jointly root out Isis before it becomes harder to dislodge.

The ideology of extremism is also challenged in practice every day by the Kurds who deeply respect religious, ethnic, and gender equality in a defiant rebuke to the rapists and head-choppers.

However, a painful transition from oil dependence to other means of making money could encourage support for the simple solutions of extremist ideology. Kurdistan itself is largely immune but a weakened Kurdistan will be less of a bulwark of moderation in the wider region.

The Kurds respect us and eagerly seek deeper relations. Many sheltered here during the dark decades of dictatorship and hold British passports.

We shouldn’t lag behind competitors in missing mutually beneficial opportunities for our companies and public bodies such as our hard-pressed universities. An official trade mission, in due course, would unlock opportunities in niche areas where the UK has much valued expertise. Companies could look at how Kurdistani gas could produce more electricity, for instance.

There is only so much the UK can do and no one is requesting vast sums of public money. The UK can seed-fund projects that make their universities fit for purpose in a more economically diverse economy, boost people’s often damaged mental health after the trauma of decades of conflict, and help train their MPs.

Our technical expertise can lift Kurdistan’s capacity to modernise and seek diplomatic solutions with their neighbours on borders and water as well as advancing economic reform and growth.

Political engagement is most important. Senior British ministers should go there and their ministers should come here to beef up our bilateral relations. Other countries have been doing that more of late and we need to catch up.

The post-Covid and post-oil age offers opportunities and dangers across the Middle East, which stands more hope of safety and prosperity if we help strengthen our allies in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Gary Kent. This article originally appeared in the Newcastle Journal on 10 October 2020.

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