Iraqi Kurdistan – the hidden jewel of the Middle East?

Somewhere near the Iraqi Kurdish city of Dohuk and also the 4,000 year old town of Amadiya, where the three wise men possibly began their journey to Bethlehem, is a Christian monastery set high on a mountain with commanding views of tremendous scenery. Sadly, our Kurdish driver had no idea where it was and I only managed to get directions by e mailing an American friend in Hawaii.

Most westerners don’t even know where Kurdistan is. And they run a mile when they hear the word Iraq. That perception of risk is being reduced by many years of safety. Visitors telling friends about the good times they enjoyed helps. Glowing reports in the Times and the FT also help.

This week’s conference on developing tourism infrastructure, organised by the Kurdistan Regional Government and the UK Trade and Investment body, brought together nearly 200 business people and hospitality experts to discuss what Kurdistan offers the tourist and what tourism can do for Kurdistan.

Visitors enthuse about what one called its “extreme hospitality.” Take the case of two young men, Tom and Jasper, who decided to hike along the historic Hamilton Road from the capital, Erbil to the Iranian border. Their first night was shaping up to be an uncomfortable one in a damp tent with just muesli bars to munch. But they happened on a restaurant where they were treated royally with bubbly and kebabs and given beds for the night. No payment was expected. The two lads are now making a documentary but insist that it is about the land and its people, not just their unique journey.

Tourists cannot assume such generosity but will always find that Kurds are well-disposed to them. A female tour guide also told the conference that women would encounter no harassment or worse. A Kurdish minister once told me that a woman could easily travel in a mini – the skirt not the car – from the Turkish to the Iranian border.

As for the sites, sights and scenery, all those I have accompanied on my twelve visits since 2006, including a holiday with my wife and son, say that they expected a sandy and dusty desert but were bowled over by the natural beauty of the countryside and vibrant urban cosmopolitanism, especially in Erbil.

The UK High Representative, Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, rightly says “Kurdistan is blessed with breathtaking landscapes, ranging from gullies and mountains to meadows and desert-like plains,” which APPG Co-Chair Nadhim Zahawi MP said is “a landscape that has long been famed in Middle Eastern literature.”

Awe-inspiring canyons, Iraq’s highest and all year-round snow-capped mountain, the Erbil plains in the summer-heat the golden yellow of a Van Gogh painting, waterfalls, rivers, the Shanidar Cave, with Neanderthal skeletons dating back perhaps 80,000 years, and more.

My own favourite city, Duhok, nestled in a spacious valley, does a roaring trade thanks to meadows, waterfalls and historic sites including a recently discovered Zoroastrian temple.

Kurdistan is rich in heritage with 3,000 known archaeological sites. Erbil is the longest continuously inhabited city, dating back maybe 8,000 years. The citadel was the site of the Temple of the Goddess Ishtar and where Darius III fled after his defeat by Alexander the Great on the nearby plains of Gaugemela. Erbil itself is the 2014 tourism capital of the Middle East.

The 2000 year old city of Koya, has over 60 historic sites. The approach to the fortress city of Amadiya, once an important Jewish city and a centre of Chaldean astrology and astronomy, could rival the Italian Riviera. The Region’s second city and city of culture, Slemani is much newer, dating from 1784. It could soon boast the largest park in the Middle East.

The weather helps. For me it’s far too hot in the summer but its dry heat is very comfortable in the Spring. For many Arabs it’s relatively cooler.

Many already visit the Kurdistan Region. Some 2.2 million people in fact last year. But most are from the rest of Iraq. The Region has built many hotels but demand still outstrips supply. The Government has recently offered loans for rural tourism projects.

It’s no good having so many wonderful things to savour and sample if no one knows where they are or how to get and stay there. Guidebooks, maps, leaflets, road signs, accommodation for all wallets, cable cars, ski resorts, holiday complexes, telecommunications, hospitality training, branding and marketing are all essential.

One delicate note: I always encourage my companions to eat lentil soup for breakfast before hitting the road as certain facilities are not what they could be away from hotels.

The KRG and the UKTI held this conference to encourage investment by British businesses, which are known for expertise in design, training, developing language skills, public relations and general knowhow.
Putting Kurdistan on the map helps win friends, is a key driver of economic growth and can overcome the past. Paul Crowe from the Titanic Museum in Belfast explained how it made a global brand of the largest man-made object, catalysed the economy through a million visitors, most from abroad, and generated £5 for every pound invested.

Kurdistan also has sites for “dark tourism” to where torture, murder and genocide were conducted. This is a major enterprise. More people visit Auschwitz each year than were murdered there. The Kurdish genocide should be explained and remembered forever.

We also heard of the linked power of film. An organiser of the annual UK Film Festival in Erbil emphasised how film crosses borders easily. Kurdistan has many locations for film-makers but film-making facilities need to be near. A film industry enables the Kurds to tell their own stories.

Kurdistan’s oil and gas will run out one day. Reliance on one major source of income is unhealthy while a diversified economy is more sustainable and encourages pluralism.

Tourism has a huge contribution to make in a two-way process of exploration and enjoyment. It would help if flights from Britain weren’t two stop ones but direct and cheaper. That will come in time and Kurdistan’s time as a major tourist destination is becoming ever more possible.

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Commons question and answer on British links with Kurdistan Region

Ian Lucas: To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what information he holds on British Government projects in the Kurdistan region of Iraq; and if he will make a statement.

Alistair Burt: The UK has funded a number of projects in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. These include training programmes for the police and women’s shelter staff, and work with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to improve the protection of women’s rights in legislation. We have also funded media training sessions for MPs in Erbil, and contribute to the European Union Integrated Rule of Law Mission—which aims to strengthen the rule of law and improve the justice system in Iraq. We will continue to work closely with the KRG through our Consulate General in Erbil.

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MP Nadhim Zahawi’s address to the KRG/UKTI conference on tourism

On my way here today I was struck by the number and variety of countries advertising themselves as holiday destinations around London. One thing really stood out, that Kurdistan was nowhere to be seen among them. That is why I am so happy to have been invited here today. To discuss what can be done to make sure that Kurdistan lives up to its potential as a leading tourist destination.

I want to talk about three key areas that should be focused on to make this a reality. What Kurdistan can already offer a potential tourist, how the tourist industry could be expanded and the infrastructure needed to facilitate such a change. Most of us here already know just how much Kurdistan has to offer the world. But this is knowledge that Kurdistan has to share.

Whenever I return I am struck by the region’s natural beauty, its mountains, ravines, waterfalls and water springs. Indeed, it’s a landscape that has long been famed in Middle Eastern literature for just these things.

Now Kurdistan has to ensure this landscape is what people think of when they hear about the region. We need to change the perceptions held by many based on images of Southern Iraq.

But even this is not the best-selling point for the area. It is Kurdistan’s history that will be the real draw. For example, Erbil is not only a vibrant and metropolitan capital but is a historical site in itself. It is a contender for the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city, dating back around 8000 years. At its heart the Hawler Citadel: an iconic image of historic Kurdistan.

Less than two hours drive away, close to Jerwana and Mar Matti is the sight of the famous battle of Gaugamela. Fought between Alexander the Great and King Darius and leading to the fall of Persian Empire.

Elsewhere in the region a tourist could explore Parastaga Zardashtm the recently discovered ancient temple in Duhok Province. They could visit Amadiya, a 4000 year old town perched on a mountain’s peak, to see its Assryian ruins and the rumoured home of the Biblical three wise men.

Then there are the ancient caves of Shanidar and Gondik. The first of which is the earliest ceremonial burial site ever discovered, the later has cave carvings dating from 3000 BC that would rival any in Europe.

With this history Kurdistan should already be a tourist hub in the region. It should be competing with some of the World’s most visited sites. Let me give you some comparisons: Jordan’s ancient City of Petra is 4000 years younger than Erbil’s Citadel but saw 500,000 people visit it in the last recorded year 2007.

The religious sites in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and around the Middle East are some of the most visited places on earth, and yet Amadiya is largely unknown.

While in France the famous cave paintings at Lascaux saw over 1000 visitors a day before restrictions were put in place to protect them, numbers that could be emulated in Gondik.
With these sites and with its landscape Kurdistan already has more than most countries to attract tourists. The important thing is to expand public knowledge of them.

Attracting people to see its wonderful history is important but Kurdistan can offer more. That is why I believe Kurdistan should also be focusing on making itself a high end and adventure holiday destination as well.

A quick look at a travel brochure of the region shows how well other states have done in attracting high end holiday makers. Kurdistan should be doing the same.

In neighbouring Kuwait tourists now flock to the capital. The famous Kuwait Towers are the centre point of a modern city which advertises itself as a luxury destination. The city has attracted high end international hotel chains, including Hilton, Intercontinental and a Four Seasons. New malls have also been built and this has led to booming tourism and business.

Similar scenes are being repeated in Oman, with Muscat recently voted the Second Best City to visit in the world in 2012 by Lonely Planet. Tourism in Oman has grown considerably recently, and it is expected to become one of the largest industries in the nation. This is due to a focus on high end hotels, shopping malls and high end activities. Of course Abu Dhabi and Dubai are two other obvious examples of success in this area of tourism.

I firmly believe that by looking at these examples Kurdistan could compete in this area as well.

With the recent success in the Oil and Gas sector, the opening of the new International Airport in Erbil and the ever improving security in the country the time is right for investment in this area.

The same applies for adventure holidays. Kurdistan’s mountains and rivers have the potential to offer skiing, river rafting and other adventurous sports. While the landscape itself lends itself to hiking, biking and running.

Again Jordan shows how this can be a success. The Deserts of Wadi Rum have become one of Jordan’s important tourist destinations. They attract climbers, trekkers, camel and horse riders and other tourists.
By focusing on these two tourist areas in addition to the history and culture of the region I believe Kurdistan could become a regional leader in tourism. To do so investment will be needed but Kurdistan is well placed to gain this.

The third and perhaps most important area that needs to be addressed is the infrastructure needed for the tourist sector to grow.

Much of this is obvious and I am pleased to see some infrastructure is already under way. The international airports recently opened will be the gateway to the region. However it is important that Kurdistan works hard to attract international airlines and direct links with key nations.

I am currently helping to try and achieve just this with the Department for Transport and Airlines here in the UK and hope we will soon be successful.

Obviously my earlier suggestions would require international hotels to be attracted to the region, but it would also be important to ensure a mix of accommodation for tourists and a way to rate them. Telecommunications, training in the hospitality industry, branding and marketing are all areas that would also need to be invested in.

On a basic level everyday things such as signs for tourists would need to be erected. Tour guides trained and information easily accessible at major transport hubs and cities.

All of this would be necessary to ensure that Kurdistan’s beauty and heritage is accessible to the international tourist whether they are from Seattle, Seville or Stratford-upon-Avon.
This would take time and energy but it is these areas that would lead to tourists visiting the region.

I know from my own constituency that to attract tourists takes time and energy. For example even a historic town and home of Shakespeare such as Stratford requires change. A new Theatre building and railway station are just two projects completed in the last three years, and more will come.

But this form of investment is needed to become a success. And I believe Kurdistan would be a success. Kurdistan’s natural beauty, history and ability to change with the times are all huge assets in the competitive arena of international tourism. That is why the next time I come to speak to this conference I hope that on my way it will be posters of Kurdistan that greet me throughout London.

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Plea for help for the Syrian refugees at the Domiz camp in Iraqi Kurdistan

The vast and sprawling refugee camp at Domiz near the Iraqi Kurdish city of Duhok is a stark reminder of the human interests at stake in the increasingly fraught debate about how to stop the slaughter in Syria. The camp is 40 miles from the Syrian border but a world apart from the daily nightmare of indiscriminate shelling and death squads that has killed 100,000 people in just two years. Domiz comprises about 50,000 people – mainly Kurds, who have been brutally wrenched from their homes, networks, possessions and who have lost family and friends. –

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Plea to help the Syrian refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan

The Shadow Minister for the Middle East, Ian Lucas, yesterday raised this in Commons Questions.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): Last week, I visited the Domiz camp in Iraq, where 150,000 fleeing Syrians have been given refuge and are being well looked after by the Kurdistan regional government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees working together. Unfortunately, however, only 28% of Syrian aid is currently funded, and there is a shortfall this year of £3.8 billion as a result of people not meeting their obligations. Will the Foreign Secretary press the G8 at least for the members of the G8 to meet their obligations, so that lives and individuals on the ground can be helped?

Mr Hague: The G8 is going on now, as the hon. Gentleman knows. As I mentioned a moment ago, one of the priorities of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is to agree at the G8 that the G8 together will supply a large share, a large slice of the new UN appeal for $5.2 billion. On my many visits to the middle east region, including the Gulf, of which there will be more shortly, I strongly encourage other nations to take part. The new appeal is several times bigger than the $1.5 billion appeal for the last six months, which shows that we are now dealing with the biggest humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century so far.

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From Mountain People to Partner?

By James Denselow.

Speaking at a recent Chatham House event former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright was asked her predictions for the Middle East. Ignoring the continued flux of both the Arab Spring the bloody civil war in Syria Albright responded that the modern relationship between Turkey and the Kurds is evidence of how “things you think will never change – change”.

Against the backdrop of the current round of bloodletting that is wracking the region, the Kurdish success story continues to establish itself. In Turkey before the headlines became dominated by the street protests one of the biggest story’s of the year was the deal made in the decades old conflict between Ankara and the PKK. The negotiated agreement that saw hundreds of PKK fighters moving into the borderland of Iraqi Kurdistan followed a sustained improvement in relations between Turkey and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) of Iraqi Kurdistan. The landlocked KRG have steadily looked to connect their two greatest assets, energy supplies and stability, through to Turkey. Albright would never have predicted that Turkey, previously so opposed to Kurdish autonomy, would develop such close economic relations with the nearest thing to a state-like entity that the World’s largest stateless people have ever had. As Iraq endures its most violent period in five years, with over 1,000 people killed in May according to the UN, those media that visit the north of the country run out of superlatives to describe the contrast. The standard headlines involves variant around the word ‘boom’ or ‘booming’.

This month the Guardian’s Ian Black made the pilgrimage to Iraqi Kurdistan to witness the final steps towards the completion of an oil pipeline that will snake into Turkey carrying with it 300,000 barrels of crude oil a day. Back in the UK industrialists, entrepreneurs, analysts and journalists alike receive a regular stream of invitations from the Middle East Association, the KRG’s office in London or the well connected All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Kurdistan to tourism conferences (In 2012, over 2.2 million tourists visited Kurdistan), business talks or trade delegations to the region. The invitations often tease with introductions outlining how with 45 billion barrels of oil reserves and 3-6 trillion cubic meters of gas reserves, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq is “one of the last remaining conventional oil and gas frontiers on earth”.

Iraqi Kurdistan’s geography, landlocked with conflict-ravaged Syria to the West and quasi-Pariah Iran to the East, may have been a blessing in pushing the KRG towards finding a modus vivendi with Turkey but it limits their long term supply of international investors. I travelled to the region in March and saw their newfound wealth translated into five star hotels, conference centres and infrastructure. It can come as no surprise to see the KRG look to Europe for high-tech investment. Against this frenzy of opportunity and activity you’d think that a government in Westminster that has put commercial diplomacy at the heart of its foreign policy would be at the vanguard of international relations with the nascent Kurdish entity. There are flickers of the potential for a far stronger relationship in the making; this February the UK Parliament recognised Saddam Hussein’s murderous ANFAL campaigns as genocide against the Kurds. This important political recognition is backed by steadily increasing economic links – in July the KRG is holding a one-day tourism infrastructure development, investment and business match-making conference in London, with the support of UK Trade and Investment. However an Iraq-phobia felt by British politicians has combined with an innate wariness as to the region’s long term stability by economic investors.

The Director of the APPG, Gary Kent, who has visited the Kurdistan Region 12 times since 2006 with fact-finding delegations, told me: “People were initially confused as to where Kurdistan was, literally. When Iraq was mentioned, they became wary. The APPG and others have made the case that increasing cultural and commercial connections with the Kurdistan Region are of mutual benefit to the UK and the Kurdistan Region. The message has got through. Kurdistan is now on the map…..the export of oil and gas to Turkey will also benefit the UK and Europe. Turkey can become an important energy hub, fuel its growing economy and become a critical cog in the secure and reliable energy resources to Europe”.

Indeed the pipeline is both a moment of high opportunity and risk. Relations between Erbil and Baghdad have been poor for some time and in the absence of a constitutional agreement around the hydrocarbons law some fear that a cold war between the centres of Iraqi power could turn hot. Black wrote in the Guardian that the Kurds were “improving their bargaining position to try to force a reluctant Baghdad to comply with the federal constitution”. This tension has manifest in fire fights across the internal border between Iraqi Kurdistan and Iraq. In May three suicide bombers attacked Kurdish security forces and the local headquarters of a Kurdish political party in the disputed area around Kirkuk. Only this week AFP reported that more than 1,000 Kurdish career soldiers in the Iraqi army have deserted and want to be integrated into forces loyal to the KRG.

A stronger relationship with a UN Security Council permanent member like the UK could prevent the completion of independent exporting capacity to Turkey becoming an issue of systemic division, as has happened between Sudan and South Sudan. The UK government commitment to the KRG does not have to come with an implicit acceptance of Kurdish independence as paradoxically enough that appears to be that last thing on the KRG’s mind. Independence brings a host of unpredictable consequences in a region whose only stability lies in the seeming permanence of the borders lovingly drawn by Britain and France nearly 100-years ago. Far better, it would seem, to embrace the pragmatisms of trade than the explosive redlines of separatism. Iraq descent into violence is of course a worry to Erbil but their security forces and internal borders buffer themselves against the aftershocks of surrounding regional conflicts.

Downing Street should not underestimate the warmth of feeling generated by the House of Commons debate recognising the Kurdish Genocide. A formal government acceptance of this history and real commitment to economic partnership would appear to be a politically and economically sensible step forward. Such a surge in relations could be launched with the hugely symbolic agreement of direct flights, an issue apparently sitting in a technical no-man’s land but surely one that a little bit of political leadership can cure. As Gary Kent explained “we need improved visa issuing facilities in Erbil and direct flights”. The Kurds famous phrase that they have ‘no friends except the mountains’ could be one for the history books as the UK and other European powers discover that amongst the bloodshed of the region there is an emerging gem in the Kurdish north of Iraq.

June 2013

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Analysis of the latest debate on Iraq in the Commons

MPs last week secured a Commons debate on the tenth anniversary of the Iraq invasion. Although there wasn’t a vote, it provided a useful barometer of how Iraq is seen in British politics and how it influences responses to new humanitarian crises.

I could amuse you by mocking the melodramatic and even conspiracist invective of some MPs. In a nutshell, Iraq was an immoral and illegal war in which a vastly exaggerated number of people died thanks to the perverse deceits of those bogeymen, Blair and Bush. One MP opined that there is nothing to be celebrated. Let’s calmly mention that the overthrow of genocidal fascism should weigh in the balance.

But what made the debate more interesting was that some MPs, often those who have taken the time and trouble to visit Iraq and including those who opposed intervention, were much more nuanced.

Foreign Office Minister Mark Simmonds said that “life across much of Iraq, particularly in the south and the Kurdistan region, is peaceful for most people most of the time.” He welcomed the recent Iraqi Cabinet meeting in Erbil as “a signal of serious intent to improve relations” between Baghdad and the KRG. Time will tell.

Another Conservative MP, Jason McCartney, who had just returned from the Kurdistan Region with me and others, opposed the war but acknowledged that regime change made a huge difference to Kurdistan which is peaceful, increasingly prosperous and fairly secular.

McCartney, a Royal Air Force officer in the no-fly zone over Kurdistan in the 1990s, said that the no-fly zone “prevented Saddam Hussein from waging his war against Iraq’s 5 million Kurds.”

He added that “having been helped themselves, the Iraqi Kurds are now helping others” and described our “emotional day” at the Domiz refugee camp near the Syrian border, (which UNHCR Ambassador Angelina Jolie visited last year), adding that the KRG “deserves praise for funding and arranging” the camp.

He urged an end to bitter disputes about revenue sharing between Erbil and Baghdad and expressed hope that Kurdistan’s relative stability could be a model for Iraq.

Another Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood, who also opposed the war and has also visited Kurdistan with me and others, said that Kurdistan had moved forward from Saddam’s atrocities and hoped that “such success can be emulated in the rest of the country.”

Ten years on, the heat of the debate has not abated and it is clear that many agonised hard and long over the decision to invade Iraq. A brief personal note. In 2003, I enthusiastically endorsed intervention but there has rarely been a day since that I haven’t questioned this.

The continuing pain of that decision was laid bare by the Shadow Minister for the Middle East and Africa, Ian Lucas, who had just returned from the Kurdistan Region, again with me.

One could see the deep emotions that attended his decision to defy Tony Blair and reject war in 2003. He honestly acknowledged that the vote profoundly impacted on British politics, including a fundamental loss of trust in the Labour Party.

Lucas was clearly deeply moved by his trip to Kurdistan. He referred to our visit to Barzan village where we met widows at the graveyard, “their faces still etched with grief 30 years on.” Our visit to Domiz was equally emotional. Those who opposed intervention usually reflect when Kurds praise the long overdue liberation and they see Kurdish achievements first hand.

But Iraq’s long and still poisonous shadow sets the context for increasingly fraught British debates about how to deal with Syria and Iran. Iraq has soured the case for liberal interventionism for which there is little popular appetite.

Earlier intervention in Syria could arguably have isolated Assad and boosted the democratic opposition, including persuading them to recognise the rights of minorities such as the Kurds. Russia and China have now become stubborn in their resistance to intervention against Assad and the UN seems impotent. Few remember that the no-fly zone that saved the Kurds in the 1990s was imposed without UN authority.

100,000 Syrians have now lost their lives, the moderate opposition has been shredded and Al Qaeda is in poll position. Chemical weapons have been used, one incident at Utaybah was nearly 25 years to the day after Halabja.

But inaction and the changed balance of forces make stopping the war in Syria much more difficult and will place pressure on regional powers to do more themselves but in the context of the simmering Sunni-Shia split that could turn very bloody and impact on the whole region.

Sadly, the refugees at Domiz won’t be going home soon and their numbers in Kurdistan could soar from 150,000 to maybe more than twice that number within months. The ring of fire around Kurdistan could also get much hotter.

We will all have to have our wits about us to help prevent a rapidly deteriorating crisis becoming much worse. As Ian Lucas rightly said, the lessons of Iraq should inform but not paralyse policy.

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A holiday in the Iraqi sun

When commentators were vociferously claiming that Iraq had gone to hell in a handcart following the invasion of ten years ago, I took my wife and son to Iraq for a holiday. I know that most people would think it eccentric to put ‘holiday’ and ‘Iraq’ in the same sentence but they are missing out.

We spent a few days in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. It’s too soon for most travellers to visit Baghdad, where I spent two weekend political breaks in 2008 and 2009, but Iraqi Kurdistan rid itself of Saddam in 1991 and has had more time to recover from decades of fascism and isolation than the rest of the country. It is safe and stable. I have often walked about there without any fear whatsoever. There’s no reason why, in time, the rest of Iraq could become more like Kurdistan.

We flew into Erbil airport, once a small airfield but now a spanking new 16 terminal and British-designed modern building that also boasts the fifth longest runway in the world. MPs were once driven down the runway before the airport opened. One bright spark suggested that Jeremy Clarkson should use it in Top Gear. The programme later visited Kurdistan and praised its safety and beauty.

The weather in early March was hot but comfortable. It’s a dry heat that seeps gently through your body rather than sweats you out. Spring is probably the best time. It’s a subjective judgement but I wouldn’t go there in July or August when it’s like a furnace.

We explored the capital Erbil, which has been transformed from what some used to see as a dusty little town to a thrusting and cosmopolitan city. Its three large parks, one of them complete with a cable car, are oases of greenery and solitude except when they are packed at the weekend.

We were lucky enough to stay one night in the five star Rotana which sports several swanky restaurants and famed for its Wednesday Fish Buffet – crab, prawns, mussels, lobster. We popped into the Empire Speed Centre where expats down lagers and burgers, with some using the go karts – before the beer, hopefully.

We also visited the Dawa restaurant in the main Sami Abdul Rahman Park for a lavish banquet of lamb, goat, turkey and chicken with their very special bread. The kebabs are served from a huge ceremonial sword.

When we later hit the road we stopped at small roadside cafes for the statutory and generous portions of kebabs and bread, although I would recommend avoiding toilets in such places.
We failed to visit the famous Citadel, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world which stretches back 8,000 years. I had seen it before and have seen it being lovingly restored with the help of Unesco. I’d also recommend a visit to its Textile Museum where you can buy rugs, mirrors, hats, ornate backgammon sets and bags.

Erbil has much to offer but to get the full flavour of the Kurdistan Region you need to escape from Erbil. Some years back, I was with a party of four MPs. Two had been to Kurdistan before and the other two were new. We were discussing the Kurdistan Regional Government’s policy of reviving agriculture. The new people formed an anti-agrarian faction scoffing at the idea that Kurdistan should sink billions into a drive for self-sufficiency. It was a vanity project.

They quickly changed their minds when we left the city and saw the breathtaking beauty of the countryside and its so far untapped agricultural potential. The Kurdistan Region is about the same size as Scotland but seems so much larger when you are on the road. The sky goes on forever and any expectations of a desert environment are knocked for six by a vast and verdant plain of fields and meadows ringed by mountains with waterfalls and springs. You can lose yourself in its solitude.

We took the road north from Erbil towards the Iranian border. It was the Hamilton Road built to help service the silk road. We saw the Pank tourist resort with its chalets and conference centre. The gorges at Gali Ali Beg were next and are the deepest in the Middle East. They are stunningly beautiful.

We later took the road towards Slemani and stopped at Lake Dukan, which provides much of the freshwater fish lovingly prepared in Kurdish restaurants. We found a way down to the waterside and saw a few boats breezing up and down but, possibly through our lack of knowledge, we didn’t see any great facilities for tourists.

The FT and the Times have recently devoted space to extolling the virtues of tourism in the Kurdistan Region. Kurdistan’s rich offering is largely untouched by tourists, particularly from the West, as the region is only just beginning to build the infrastructure needed to open itself to tourism. Hotels, cable cars, ski resorts, holiday complexes, telecommunications, training in the hospitality industry, branding and marketing are all areas that are ripe for development.

The KRG UK is organising a Tourism Infrastructure Development conference entitled Kurdistan Region: the hidden jewel of the Middle East. It is on Tuesday 2 July 2013 from 9am to 5pm at the BIS Conference Centre, 1 Victoria Street, London SW1H 0ET

The organisers point out that over two billion US Dollars worth of private investment has already gone into tourism infrastructure development and that the KRG wants to enable some of Kurdistan’s largest companies and senior officials to meet and potentially partner with British producers of goods, services, expertise and consulting companies.

Participants can meet KRG ministers and government officials, leading Kurdish companies and Kurdistan’s chambers of commerce and trade associations.

To secure a place at this conference, send an email with your full name and a brief description of your company to Ms Nawal Karim, Director of Trade and Investment Relations at the KRG UK Representation,

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Remembering Times Foreign Editor Richard Beeston

The Kurdistan Regional Government is very saddened to learn of the death of Richard Beeston, an outstanding journalist and loyal friend of the Kurdish people.

A foreign correspondent and editor of 30 years, Richard was one of the first reporters to witness the chemical attack against the people of Halabja in 1988. His reporting helped to expose the massacre to the international community and to the public, at a time when Iraqi Kurdistan was little known, oppressed and isolated from the world.
Richard spoke about what he saw in Halabja many times over the years because he wanted to stand up for the victims and raise the alarm about the use of chemical weapons elsewhere, for example, in Syria. He spoke powerfully and movingly about the tragedy that he witnessed, even though it cost him emotionally to do so. The last time he did this publicly was in March 2013 at Chatham House, to mark the 25th anniversary of the attack on Halabja.

Richard supported the campaign for international recognition of the genocide against the Kurds in Iraq, speaking in the British parliament and at international conferences, and he reminded Times readers of the tragedy in Halabja, 25 years after the end of the Iran-Iraq war. Richard supported a UK petition campaign, which led to the UK parliament unanimously recognising the genocide against the Kurds in Iraq in March this year.

At a rally supporting the petition, Richard said, “I went on to cover many wars but the memories of Halabja are fresh in my mind. I went back to Halabja many years later, in the spring, and in the hills there were young people picnicking, happy. It was a very emotional moment. It reminded me of the power of humanity to overcome the worst of war. ”
The people of Kurdistan have lost a loyal friend, and the world has lost a great journalist and foreign editor. Our thoughts are with Richard’s family and friends, we send our sincere condolences to them.
Kurdistan Regional Government

Erbil, Kurdistan Region, Iraq

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Transforming lives – from the North East of England to the Kurdistan Region.

Adrian Pearson wrote this feature on the work of the Newcastle-Gateshead Medical Volunteers in the Journal on 22 April.

Northern Iraq may not at first glance seem like the ideal place to travel to twice a year, but for a growing number of North East medics this is a much-sought opportunity.

The Newcastle Gateshead Medical Volunteers are now an increasingly important part of the health system in Kurdish Iraq.

The orthopaedic surgery team put together by Dr Deiary Kader now regularly helps people who in some cases have gone their entire life without much-needed medical treatment.

In his day job, for which he also offers up valuable volunteer time, Dr Kader is a consultant orthopaedic and trauma surgeon at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Gateshead.

But after almost 20 years in the UK, he says he wants to give something back to his native Kurdistan.

His small team first set off in 2010, making two trips that year, and volunteers have repeated that process ever since. Those earlier trips saw the team work with only basic equipment, using home drill kits to help meet the various medical needs.

Since then they have built up some of the best clinics in the region to provide the type of surgery few in Kurdistan would otherwise be able to afford, a service provided for free by his small team.

“These are people who are destitute, they are very poor and just could never afford the £10,000 needed for a knee replacement,” Dr Kader said.

“We see out there some of what we might see here in the UK, but a lot is related to the situation there.

“We see military guys with injuries from war, while the other problem we see a lot is the consequences of the bad health system.

“We see people who have, for example, dislocated a hip as a baby and no one has recognised it or treated it. They have suffered from childhood and come to us in their mid-20s and limp badly, are in pain and suffer a devastating life. We can offer a chance to change that. It’s that potential treatment that over here is more routine. We sawa lady who hadn’t walked for five years due to arthritis.” He added: “At the beginning we did not have much to work with when we went out there – we couldn’t just fly out the equipment. “But over the years the local charities have recognised that we are here for the long term and they have started buying stuff for us.”

Every trip out there saves local groups £200,000, with the Kurdish charities helping costs for nurses and some others. Those nurses and doctors originally include just a few from the North East, but Dr Kader now has frequent support from Oxford, London and across the country. Indeed, medics are lining up to get involved despite the hard work. A typical trip sees 46 major operations in just seven days. So far the organisation has done 200 operations of the hip and knee joint and seen 1,200 patients at the clinic .

“At first it was difficult to get people to agree to go, because of what they have heard about Iraq,” Dr Kader said. “And it was a big responsibility for me, to take 10 people over there and be responsible for them, when 50 miles away from where we were there was some pretty bad bombing. “But we have had reassurances from the regional government that there is nothing to be concerned about. “Now we go there, and there are no signs of insecurity or problems, we go and there are no scares, everything goes smoothly. “So now we have a waiting list for people to go, with Continued interest from the Freeman, the RVI, from Wansbeck and elsewhere in the region.

“That’s partly as a result of the help we get both out there and here, where in Parliament we have the support of MP Dave Anderson and (parliamentary assistant) Gary Kent.” Support in Kurdistan comes from the Nechirvan Health Aid Office and Barzani Charity Foundation, which provide social, cultural and humanitarian aid in Kurdistan to the people who need it most.

That means working without discrimination and regardless of a person’s belief or ethnicity to help rebuild the shattered lives of the many thousands of displaced this devastated society. Dr Kader is also a professor of sports science at Northumbria University, and tries to give as much of his time locally as he has internationally. The doctor has done 40 free theatre lists for the NHS in the past year, offering up his own time on what would otherwise be days off to help keep NHS bills down. He said: “I think charity begins at home.

I just feel that if I am doing something for Kurdistan, I am obliged to do something for the country that has trained me, that has given me all I have. “It’s unusual I know; a lot of people think I am crazy. But it’s a nice thing I can do, an example maybe someone else will follow one day. It’s very fulfilling work.” His work out there has earned him frequent praise, including from Blaydon MP Dave Anderson, who has seen the team in action in Kurdistan in his role as secretary of the cross-party parliamentary group on Kurdistan. Mr Anderson said: “Deiary has done wonders in inspiring fellow medics in the North East to put their expertise to good use in Kurdistan and enjoy themselves into the bargain.

“They have brought much relief to dozens of people who needed hip and knee operations and have literally helped them stand on their own two feet.” Mr Anderson, who will table a Commons motion saluting Deiary and the initiative, added: “The Kurdistan region is increasingly able to use its new-found wealth to provide better public services but having been isolated for so long and oppressed by Saddam Hussein, they need British expertise.

“The wider story is that there are many other trade and investment opportunities for North East businesses in this safe, hospitable and pro-British place.”

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