An enthusiasm of engineers

Westminster is in recess, the focus is on the Queen’s 60th anniversary and I have been back to Kurdistan for my ninth visit which prompts me to offer a view from Westminster rather than about the UK Parliament.

To paraphrase Julie Andrews in the Sound of Music, here are some of my unfavorite things about Kurdistan.

But first a vignette from 2008. I was then with parliamentarians who had only been in Erbil and believed that investing in agriculture was a futile vanity project. We then drove to Sulaimani and they immediately understood that the majestic mountains, arable plains and water features could drive agricultural production and tourism.

But we also noticed the litter. On my first visit in 2006 I thought that the plastic glinting by the roads was protecting saplings but sadly they were just discarded water bottles. The scale of litter everywhere in Kurdistan is a national disgrace, symbolizes a lack of individual responsibility for patriotically looking after the homeland and will deter tourism.

Likewise, it is impossible to travel around Kurdistan without seeing the scale of dangerous driving. I feel safer in Kurdistan than parts of London but fear the terrifying possibility of a high-speed road crash. It’s terrible to see so many cars driving at 100 km plus just behind the car in front. Nor is it wise for so many parents to allow their children to sit or stand in the front of cars without seatbelts.

These are relatively easy problems to solve through public awareness campaigns and civil penalties. The same goes for much improved fire and electrical safety in public buildings – I once stayed at the Sulaimani hotel which burnt down with the loss of nearly 30 people.

Other problems may take longer and also need concerted action. These include a top-heavy state, corruption, an unprofessional media and women’s rights. Tackling these are morally vital but could also increase the productivity and wealth of Kurdistan.

Now for some of my favorite things. Kurdistan usually impresses visitors who see a massive construction boom and a steely determination to overcome the past and cope with the problems that prosperity produces. Whilst there, I saw what I would call an ‘enthusiasm of engineers’ discussing how to overcome traffic gridlock.

But improving the basic hardwiring of Kurdistan had long been an impossible dream for such professionals and patriots. Such infrastructure was only deemed important for the military needs of Saddam Hussein. Oil and gas weren’t mapped or developed.  Why develop such riches for a people considered subhuman and worthy of extermination.

Little was done to establish the energy potential after the 1991 uprising as the Kurds were too poor and isolated. But energy riches can now fund the thwarted projects of the engineers.

It is helped by well educated Kurds returning with experience in countries that take good infrastructure for granted and are anxious to get things going back home.

The Kurds endured inferior foreign goods and services during the long limbo between the uprising and 2003. They can now demand quality and best practice.

The expertise of enthusiastic engineers is also meeting the demands of growth. Take traffic. Private cars were once rare but now some families have three or four cars. I understand that the number of cars in Erbil has soared from 40,000 to 250,000 in a decade.

Congestion is blocking the arteries in cities and poor roads between the cities adds time to the burgeoning trade with Turkey. Pipelines and rail can reduce that. One day trams could reduce urban congestion.

I visited Dohuk which is, in my view, the most beautiful city in Kurdistan. It is relaxed, airy, cooler, spacious and colorful. It is the safest Iraqi city although only 35 kilometers from the most dangerous city of Mosul. It can become the city of tourism but the 160 kilometer journey from Erbil takes 3 hours and it is only just starting an airport. A better roads system can connect the cities internally and with neighboring countries.

Dusty old Erbil is spreading its wings and the boom is attracting a bubble of businessmen which drives plush hotels and swish gated communities. But Kurdish union leaders told me their priorities include hundreds of thousands of affordable homes.

Tackling litter bugs and road hogs is the easy bit. Building infrastructure that lasts for decades will needs careful planning in partnership with a Kurdish and foreign private sector that should grow and underpin pluralism.

Thanks to the Exxon Mobil deal and the new relationship with Turkey, there is increased talk about the possibility of an independent Kurdistan Region. That may or may not be feasible. But with enthusiasm, expertise and enterprise Kurdistan could remake itself as a global nation that is smart, democratic and outward looking. Success will build further success. That is what I take back to Westminster.

* Gary Kent is the Administrator of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG). He writes this column for Rudaw in a personal capacity.

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