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Anglo-Kurdistani Relations: Much Done, More to Do

"I have been captivated by the magnetism of Kurdistan for nearly a quarter of my life.”

The modern Kurdistan Region has a large and growing place in the UK’s affections and priorities. 

This is thanks to UK Prime Minister John Major’s brave and pioneering decision in 1991 to establish the no-fly zone and safe haven over the Kurdistan Region. 

It is also driven by the vital role of the region in resisting extremism in its pivotal position at the heart of the Middle East and as one of the most dynamic parts of a key country, Iraq.

Saved from further genocide in 1991, the Kurdistan Region began to build its society in difficult conditions, including UN- and Baghdad-imposed sanctions as well as a bloody civil war. Despite these, various metrics of social development rose, some more than the rest of Iraq.

Somewhat ironically, Kurdistan found itself in a good position after the liberation of Iraq in 2003 to help stabilize the whole country. Its seasoned leadership was better equipped to navigate chaotic post-invasion Iraq, fill the Iraqi Presidency, and secure a federal constitution in the popular vote of 2005. 

Federalism rather than a more typically centralized Arab Republic was the condition of their co-operation with other components of the Iraq state from the start of the pre-invasion negotiations conducted through the Iraqi National Congress.

Sadly, a golden era of co-operation between Erbil and Baghdad was ruined by Shia overreach in the wake of the premature withdrawal of most American forces. This co-operation was eventually rebuilt during the common struggle against ISIS, but then tainted again by opportunist, Iranian-influenced actions by Baghdad in the wake of the peaceful referendum of 2017.  

Kurdistan’s popular decision - 93% Yes - to seek independence in principle remains but is not imminent. Relations are being rebuilt but have a long way to go. The federal constitution should be the basis of that.

Meanwhile, the neighbors are squeezing Kurdistan as the war between the PKK and Turkey often visits its lands while Iran, keen to chase the United States out of the Middle East and divert attention from a home-grown revolution, throws its missiles around in the Kurdistan Region.

As Kurdistani leaders so often say, they cannot choose their neighbors and live in a tough neighborhood. But as they also say, they can choose their friends. The UK is one of those.

The British Consulate-General in Erbil has become an increasingly important diplomatic post staffed by more and increasingly senior officials. It is more senior than the British embassies in some sovereign states and reflects the importance to our foreign policy of a strong Kurdistan within Iraq.

Likewise, KRG President and Prime Minister Masrour Barzani met a wider range of ministers than is usual for other leaders during his two recent official visits to the UK. This included Cabinet Minister Nadhim Zahawi, a champion of Anglo-Kurdistani relations par excellence.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on the Kurdistan Region, which was once co-chaired by Nadhim Zahawi, is also one of the most active and oldest of such friendship groups, which covers many countries and regions around the world. 

It has been too long since we sent a delegation to Erbil, which was due to the difficulty of traveling with the Covid-19 pandemic and political disruption in Britain. The last visit took us unusually to Baghdad, where a Foreign Minister was keen to stress that relations with Erbil should be repaired. We are planning a fresh visit next year and to underline the need to settle the many disputes between Baghdad and Erbil.

The egregious decisions of the so-called Federal Supreme Court – it has not been constitutionally formed – on the Kurdistani energy sector and, more recently, on bigamy, are particularly shocking and clearly politically motivated.

We have also engaged with the Sheik Mahmoud Foundation to drill into the history of the first and last King of Kurdistan as well as the ebbs and flows of Anglo-Kurdish relations a century ago when war and peace also rose and fell. We are hosting a reception with them in the Commons in the new year.

In the 15 delegations we have sent to Kurdistan since 2007, many Kurds have kindly thanked us for our work. In the beginning, the common mantra was that we owed Kurdistan a break given that we had helped forcibly incorporate Kurds into Iraq. A senior Iman recently told me that we were to blame and should sort it out as a superpower. Sadly, perhaps, we are not a superpower, and we cannot sort it out.

However, most Kurdistani leaders have dumped that approach and now frame the case for supporting nation-building in Kurdistan through the lens of mutual interest.

I have been captivated by the magnetism of Kurdistan for nearly a quarter of my life. I don’t feel I am doing favors to the Kurds. For me it is also about British interests. We are safer and the world is better off with a decent and reforming Kurdistan.

Successive APPG reports have analyzed the dysfunctional nature of the Kurdistani economy and commended further and faster reform.

We have helped advance small and major wins for Kurdistan. These include securing the first official trade mission to Kurdistan, persuading the House of Commons to formally recognize the Anfal Genocide, asking the popular Top Gear program to make a film in Kurdistan that was viewed by millions globally, and advocating firm practical support for Kurdistan in its fight against ISIS. 

There is a strong case for British companies and bodies helping to build a film industry, using the landscape for films, and allowing Kurds to tell their stories to the world. Exporting pomegranates to western supermarkets and elsewhere could symbolize the renaissance of agriculture, a money-spinner to add to energy and other sectors.

External assistance to advance quality training and higher education to international standards is vital. I have taught many KRG civil servants and leaders the art of devising and conveying political messages in the context of the rule of law.

We have also developed views on the need for Kurds to overcome the old legacies of statism, oil dependence, and wasta

I have become fairly immersed in Kurdistani culture, which is often hospitable and outward facing, and was until last year a university director in Kurdistan. I know that reform is vital to releasing the energies of dynamic workers in the public and private sectors and that of young people too. 

I have seen at first hand some of this enthusiasm and have also seen how damaging selfish defense of vested interests by some can be. These things can happen anywhere, but bad practice needs to be tackled.

We want long-term relationships between our peoples and with Kurdistani ministers and leaders, without taking sides in its domestic politics. We can learn from Kurdistan and hope that our ideas and experience can help Iraqi Kurds to survive and thrive in complex and difficult conditions. Much done, more to do.

Gary Kent has been the Secretary of the APPG on the Kurdistan Region, House of Commons, since 2007 and writes in a personal capacity.