Kurdistan is an Iraqi success story. But it needs our support to stay that way

by Gary Kent

News and images from the Middle East are dominated by doom and gloom: from the horrific slaughter in Syria to the dangerous deepening of the Sunni-Shia schism. Yet there is one place where tragedy is being overcome and which is keen to connect to Britain and the wider world, as part of an ambitious reform programme – the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

Yes, I know that the very mention of the word “Iraq” usually gives people the wobbles, summoning up the bitterness about the decision to invade in 2003 and accompanied by almost daily scenes of gore and mayhem from Baghdad and Anbar.

But I fear we are missing out on a very positive story. The Kurdistan Region is different and far, far safer than the rest of the country but, of course, not perfect and a work in progress.

Its history of oppression at the hands of successive Baghdad regimes and Saddam Hussein used to be meat and drink for the international left. A previous generation was very aware of Halabja in 1988, when Saddam’s forces used chemical weapons and killed thousands in seconds. Many of us remember Saddam’s goons in Britain beating up opponents in the NUS and universities.

Much of that awareness has been lost or overtaken by the divisions over the war. I supported intervention but most comrades didn’t. This is a divide that will last forever but one that shouldn’t stop us working together in solidarity with those who are seeking peace, pluralism and prosperity.

Today, the Commons will debate UK relations with the Kurdistan Region in a fairly unusual debate which is accompanied by the launch of a report on the latest fact-finding and cross-party parliamentary delegation to the Kurdistan Region. The delegation included Labour MPs Meg Munn and Mike Gapes as well as Conservatives Nadhim Zahawi and Robert Halfon. I drafted the report which can be found in full here.

My focus here is on political capacity. For decades, the revolutionary struggle of the Kurds demanded military skills and making do with whatever was to hand to satisfy the daily needs of the people. This persisted after Saddam quit Kurdistan in the wake of his defeat in Kuwait in 1991 and was added to by a bitter internal civil war whose shadow is long.

The liberation of Iraq in 2003, as it is usually described there, started a new phase which is only now picking up the pace with some remarkable success.

They have always had oil and gas but when Saddam ruled the roost he was keener to put Kurds under the ground – the mass graves are still being found – rather than extract energy and a major source was entirely ignored. The Kurds have now built a new energy sector and have huge reserves of oil and gas which they can use to fund their needs.

Turkey has always been its neighbour but the deep hostility that nearly prompted a Turkish invasion has been replaced by Turkey becoming its biggest trading partner with 100,000 Turkish workers in the Kurdistan Region and now a new oil pipeline that feeds Turkey’s vast consumption and can monetise Kurdistan’s assets.

Having been isolated for so long, the Kurds have reached out to the outside world for expertise, experience and investment. They are making use, for instance, of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and the National School of Government. Thousands of civil servants in the capital Erbil have taken courses at the European Technology and Training Centre of which I am a board member. Think tanks and other groups from across the spectrum should look at what they could offer.

Yet my experience, having been there many times since 2006, is that a small cadre of politicians and policy-makers is carrying a huge burden in thinking about how they can modernise their economy and society.

My fear is that the Iraqi Kurds could succumb to a widespread ailment of oil-rich countries – letting others do the work, resting on laurels, and authoritarianism. What sort of place will Kurdistan be in fifty years time: the worst is something like Nigeria, the middling alternative is Dubai which is rich, has great infrastructure but no soul, or Norway which is using its current wealth to plan a sustainable and broadly social democratic future.

The Kurdistan Region is in flux. Its old political duopoly has been challenged by a opposition party, Gorran, that emerged from a split in the once second party and has now replaced it. Not great if you are in the losing party but a sign of hope if change is absorbed peacefully. There have been negotiations, now for well over 100 days, to put together a broad coalition of all parties. Again, this illustrates how far politics has to go before it attains greater maturity and reliable patterns, although I am aware that Belgium took far longer to build a cabinet some years back.

The point of this small selection of points about Kurdistan is that it is a place which has decided to embrace change, does so in a region where tradition usually hangs heavy over the living and is keen for others to see what they are doing in a mutually beneficial and respectful exchange of ideas. Think about learning more yourself and going there one day.

Gary Kent is the Director of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan Region and Director of Labour Friends of Iraq. He writes in a personal capacity. You can read more about Kurdistan at www.appgkurdistan.org.uk

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9 Responses to “Kurdistan is an Iraqi success story. But it needs our support to stay that way”

  1. swatantra says:

    Rubbish. It’ll go the same way as S Sudan, maybe Afghanistan, and Bosnia, Kosovo etc and there are still people who call for an independent Kashmir, as though we really do need another Islamic republic on our doorstep, like Afghanistan. When will feeble minded people in the West realise that they are creating yet more basket cases for generations to deal with.

  2. Tafia says:

    Except it’s not a success story from the Allies point of view. It was very important to the Coalition that the Iraqi kurds remained Iraqi and did not move to more autonomy. Amongst the reason two factors were that the Coalition saw the oil fields in the Kurd areas generating money to help repair the whole country, and they didn’t want Kurdish nationalism and separatism encouraging in case it destabilised Turkey (a NATO member) and Iran.

  3. gary kent says:

    Sadly, the first reply is just unaware of the reality of the Kurdistan Region. As for the second, the Kurdistan Region had no oil fields in 2003. They have developed their oil and gas resources since liberation. Revenues accrue to the national exchequer in Baghdad. Independence is not on the table at the moment and maybe never. The new relationship between the KRG and Turkey could render the other fear redundant.

  4. Ex-labour says:

    I’m currently working on a project for Kurdistan and the article is almost entirely correct for those making previous comments.

  5. swatantra says:

    Kent himself has said ….
    ‘My fear is that the Iraqi Kurds could succumb to a widespread ailment of oil-rich countries – letting others do the work, resting on laurels, and authoritarianism. What sort of place will Kurdistan be in fifty years time: the worst is something like Nigeria, the middling alternative is Dubai which is rich, has great infrastructure but no soul, or Norway which is using its current wealth to plan a sustainable and broadly social democratic future’ …
    and I’m pleased that he has taken those rose tinted glasses and sees the reality of the situation. I only wish our Shad Cab saw it the same way. Saudi Arabia is funding islamic terrorism.

  6. Tafia says:

    I have friends in the Kurdish area of Iraq working as security contractors and they have been there for 8 years. They tell a different story to Mr Kent with regards to Iraqi Kurds ambitions.

    Incidentally, it’s been known for donkeys years that there was gas and oil there – long before 2003.

  7. gary kent says:

    It’s certainly been known for decades that the energy resources were there. I have been told of how oil easily seeped through to the surface in many places and was used as cures for ailments. The oil has long been exploited in Kirkuk, which is claimed by Kurdistan but so far outside the boundaries of the Kurdistan Region. But they were not explored within the Kurdistan Region when it was under Saddam’s rule. It wasn’t possible in the hiatus between the uprising in 1991, protected by the no-fly zone, and that has only happened in the last few years. As for the Kurds’ ambitions. It shouldn’t be a surprise that there is a popular base for independence given how they have long been treated by regimes in Baghdad. Indeed, there was an informal referendum some years back which showed overwhelming support for it. Yet the Kurdistan Region is part of Iraq. Its leaders have tried to make it work and it may yet be possible to have a fully functioning federalism which allows Kurdistan to remain part of Iraq but have substantial autonomy.

  8. Henrik says:

    I’m just guessing, here, but my suspicion is that Comrade Kent has never been to “Kurdistan” or, if he has, has only seen the Potemkin villages there.

  9. Tafia says:

    The reality of the Kurdish area of Iraq is that the Kurd flag flies over most public buildings, the notionally Iraqi Police and Army units there are in fact ethnically kurd and aren’t the slightest bit interested in Baghdad, that most of the political parties there are kurdish nationalist and support independence and the fact that it’s quite normal to see kurdish guerillas not only wandering around in uniform, but doing so fully armed and moving through checkpoints unhindered.

    Incidentally, one of my friends is the regional manager there for a major US security company and controls several hundred contract security operating in and around Erbil, and is married to a kurd he met out there and actually lives there all year round. He liaises on a daily basis with high ranking local officials etc etc – and they aren’t in the slightest interested in remaining in Iraq and make no effort to hide that position – a position incidentally that most of the western corporations (whose regional hierarchy he obviously has to deal with on a daily basis ) operating out there are also quite happy with.

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