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The consequences of Covid-19 means radical reform is needed in Kurdistan – Britain can help

President of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Nechirvan Barzani. | PA Images

5 min read

Due to Covid-19, demand for oil has plummeted. On top of this are the costs of war, looking after more than a million displaced people, and years of under-funding by Baghdad governments – radical reform and economic diversification is needed.

The multiple crises facing the Kurdistan Region in Iraq may seem remote as we focus on Covid at home, but Kurdistan should not be overlooked.

Here’s why Kurdistan matters to us. If the Kurds hadn’t defied the fascist death cult of the so-called Islamic State (Isis) for many years, it could have seized more territory, oil riches, and airports. That would have meant more genocide, more external military involvement, and more attacks here.

The Isis caliphate was decimated by the Kurds and the Iraqis with our support. But Isis is regrouping in the vast security blind spots in disputed territories between Iraq and Kurdistan. Kurdistan’s efficient defence force, the Peshmerga should be allowed to help rout them out.  That goes along with greater Iraqi and international efforts to resolve longstanding and bitter disputes over the status of these territories.

But Covid means hard times for Kurdistan and Iraq. Covid suddenly slashed demand for oil on which the Kurds are heavily reliant and reduced trade has also cut their revenues to ribbons. This comes on top of the costs of war, looking after more than a million displaced people and refugees, and years of under-funding by Baghdad governments.

The result is that state salaries have been cut and are in arrears with increased poverty, unemployment, and less investment in important infrastructure improvements.

We suggest a fact-finding mission by senior experts to assess how higher education could meet the needs of youth and the new economy

Radical reform and economic diversification are needed. Kurdistan can no longer rely on oil revenues and should better exploit its other natural resources. They have vast agricultural potential and could earn sustainable income from tourists attracted by its wonderful landscape of plains, mountains, and rivers as well as cosmopolitan cities.

Its minerals and rare metals are also potent money-spinners. Kurdistan’s plentiful gas can become a bigger source of electricity at home and in exports to Iraq and Europe, which can reduce their reliance on Iran and Russia.

Kurdistan’s natural respect for others is another precious asset. It has championed religious tolerance and pluralism, a better record on women’s rights than other countries, openness to the world through education, an active diplomacy to make friends, and an eagerness to deepen its democracy.

Those are essential to challenging the siren calls of extremism, which could gain a new lease of life as the Middle East adjusts to the fading importance of oil as consumers reduce demand to tackle climate change.

Kurdistan is more than a region of Iraq and is not quite a state. Kurdistan’s fate is intertwined with Iraq with which relations are awkward. After all, the Kurds were forced by the British into Iraq, which treated them as second class citizens and ended up committing genocide against them.

Before the liberation of Iraq in 2003, the Kurds insisted on the new Iraq being federal and equal and that was translated via the 2005 referendum into a new constitution for Iraq. It has not been honoured with promised changes on the disputed territories or a law governing the sharing of Iraqi revenues - a Barnett-type fiscal funding formula.

Given this, Kurdistanis overwhelmingly backed the principle of negotiated independence in 2017 and Baghdad proved the point by using completely unnecessary and unconstitutional violence and vainly invading Kurdistan.

Such command and control methods should be replaced by equality and partnership. Thankfully, both Iraq and Kurdistan now have reforming leaders, who deserve support in resetting their relations and economics.

The next question is how the UK can help. The APPG recently undertook a virtual delegation to meet senior Kurdistani leaders in lieu of a real life visit. We have identified several discreet projects the UK government could fund without great largesse and which encourage reform.

We suggest a fact-finding mission by senior experts to assess how higher education could meet the needs of youth and the new economy, starter funds for mental health projects to increase the resilience of our allies, skills transfers for Kurdistani MPs, and continued support for unifying and professionalizing the Peshmerga.

Covid infections have risen and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) needs urgent medical equipment to stop its health services being overwhelmed.

It’s not all about government funding though. We also ask that the UK organises a second official trade mission to unlock opportunities for private investors and public institutions for a country that sees us as a partner of choice.

Furthermore, the KRG asks for increased British political engagement. It’s been three years since the last UK ministerial visit and six years since the KRG leadership came to London on an official visit. The delays are understandable but other countries have been more active of late. It is high time for the Foreign Secretary to pay a visit and pave the way for a further KRG visit to London to meet the Prime Minister and others.

Covid will be tamed or tackled in due course but the consequences of Covid will be critical for Kurdistan. We are lucky they see us as allies, and they could do much to help the Middle East overcome its deep-seated problems. We should not be found to be lacking in lending a hand.


Robert Halfon is the Conservative MP for Harlow and chair of the APPG on the Kurdistan Region. The APPG's new report on its recent virtual delegation, Zooming into Kurdistan can be found at HERE.

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