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Supporting Stability

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The following article was published in The House Magazine 8th February 2010.


Iraq’s national elections in March could consolidate the country’s democracy and further isolate insurgents, but achieving the strong international business and cultural ties they want will take some time. However the Kurdistan Region in the north of the country offers commercial opportunities for Britain now, opportunities that others are working to get.


Kurdistan is the safest region in Iraq with established political parties, a functioning government and democratic parliament, and opportunities for this country’s commercial sector. Establishing strong business links with Kurdistan can also mean strong links with the rest of Iraq as violence diminishes in the south of the country, and the economy takes off.


The Kurdistan region is truly open for business; a wide variety of companies are active in the region, and the list is growing. In the rest of Iraq only the largest international companies are beginning to engage, those with experience of coping with security risks.


Those companies willing to invest in Kurdistan now have the opportunity to expand their operations to the south in the next few years. Increasing Kurdistan’s oil and gas output and their agricultural yield, for instance, benefits everyone in Iraq and is more immediately feasible than other parts of Iraq.


Kurdistan’s political, civic and business leaders have long appealed for such links. They appreciate the quality and expertise of British companies and institutions and wish to be our political and economic allies. But we have fallen behind France, Germany, Italy and others in encouraging the growth of two-way commerce. A handful of British companies have taken part in trade fairs for instance compared with dozens of German and French businesses.


There has been no official UK ministerial trade mission and other trade missions have no government support. The Embassy Office in Kurdistan’s capital, Erbil, is currently under-staffed, compared with other countries, and marooned many miles from the city centre. The visa regime should also be extended to recognised business people to encourage the growth of commerce, a step other European countries have taken.


On my recent fact-finding trip to Kurdistan, as a guest of its Parliament, I saw for myself how open they are to fresh ideas. I co-presented seminars on British politics at the Parliament; seminars attended by more than half the region’s MPs who bombarded us with questions. MPs are typical of many civic leaders who recognise that they are starting almost from scratch; they don’t want to reinvent the wheel but wish to adapt best practice from elsewhere.


Kurdistan’s leaders already seek external expertise to help overcome problems. For instance they have contracted the UK’s National School of Government to increase the capacity of their civil service. They have also asked PriceWaterhouseCooper to ensure corruption is rooted out of civil and civic society.


Their leaders have taken a stand against such deeply embedded problems as so-called honour killings, and female circumcision. During my visit I was pleased to meet the Women’s Committee of the Suleimaniah provincial council. They have made great advances in establishing the concerns of female council employees, challenged sexual harassment and created a crèche. This practical radicalism stands out in the Middle East where women’s interests are normally way down the political agenda.


Relations with Turkey are thawing fast, but unfortunately relations with Baghdad are currently glacial. The differences with the national government are the disputed territories where the population is mixed, how to manage natural resources and distribute revenues. I expect that progress on some of these can be made after the March national elections. The 2005 constitution, which was endorsed by 80% of the people in a referendum, outlined means to resolve many of these issues but has yet to be implemented.


The internal politics of the region are maturing. Opposing views are vital to a vibrant democracy and there is now a new opposition force, Gorran (the Change) which emerged from a bitter split in one of two dominant parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.  I held discussions with leaders of Gorran, which won a quarter of the parliamentary seats in last year’s regional elections


Britain has a short-lived opportunity to develop strong commercial and political ties with the Kurdistan region. If it does not others will. Overlooking Kurdistan does no one any favours.


Former Foreign Office Minister Meg Munn MP is the Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, and also chairs the Westminster Foundation for Democracy.

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