Gary Kent: Why Britain can benefit from showing its faith in Kurdistan

Gary Kent, back from his 18th visit to Kurdistan, says its people  need and deserve our help

Workers in front of a stunning sunset in Kurdistan, North Iraq
Workers in front of a stunning sunset in Kurdistan, North Iraq

Last week I attended an official birthday reception for the Queen. British business people and leaders including the President hailed our relations at the poolside of a five star hotel while American, European, Arab and Iranian diplomats mingled over the canapés.

Such parties happen in many countries but this one was just 25 miles from fighting along a 650 mile front between the so-called Islamic State (Isis) and the Peshmerga, the soldiers of the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

This was my 18th trip there since 2006 and my third since Isis captured one third of Iraq a year ago. Things were more free and easy beforehand. Two years ago myself, Dave Anderson MP and others visited Kurdistan to mark the 25th anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s chemical attack on Halabja and a wider genocide.

My wife and son then joined me for a brief break in Iraq. We saw the biggest canyon in the Middle East and the snow capped mountains. We randomly stopped at local cafes for kebabs. We walked around the capital Erbil and its 6,000 year old Citadel - the oldest continually inhabited city in the world - with no fear. We dined with visitors from the Newcastle Gateshead Medical Volunteers, led by Newcastle surgeon Deiary Kader.

Last week I was more cautious but the security record remains very good and I felt safe although the head-choppers were near.

In contrast to the rest of Iraq, Kurdistan has suffered just 10 attacks in 12 years with fewer than 200 deaths and most of them on one terrible day in 2004. Security is tighter, for sure.

Some Kurds have joined Isis, as have many people from across the world, including Brits. Two terrorist cells were recently captured. The huge influx of internally displaced people from Arab areas of Iraq may contain sleeper cells but the Kurds are extraordinarily generous in looking after their guests.

That enviable security record has been combined with a welcoming approach to international investment and expertise. Kurdistan considers the UK to be a partner of choice and is keen to attract British companies whose quality is valued.

I also took part in a Pathfinder trade mission, which brought together British business people offering services and goods such as air conditioning. We met several keen ministers and business organisations.

Business people know that securing contracts requires building relationships and, in this case, showing good faith in the future of Kurdistan.

But the economy has nose-dived from double digit growth since the rise of Isis, and the fall in oil prices. The Kurdistan Regional Government is owed billions by Baghdad which has blocked or cut budget payments since early 2014. People have not been paid for three months.

Hundreds of small and big investment projects have been suspended. There are many half-finished construction sites with cranes that stay still across the skyline. The burden of up to two million guests is straining finances and services. The economy has tanked.

But Kurdistan could again be a dynamic place that values its connections to the UK - many of its leaders were brought up here in exile and English is the second language.

Britain is training and arming the Peshmerga, although more heavy weapons are needed to counter the Mad Max armoured suicide vehicle bombs that cannot be stopped with AK47s. Recovery also requires internal reform to diversify the economy.

Angus McKee, the young British diplomat who organised the successful party for the Queen is flying the flag for the UK, as will MPs in the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan Region.

Kurdistan will one day get off its knees and British businesses and universities can then find much-needed work and more tourists can explore a beautiful and hospitable place.

The Kurds happily toasted the Queen last week. We should return the compliment to staunch Kurdish friends at the forefront of the fight against extremism.

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