Robert Halfon: The world needs Kurdistan to survive and thrive as a decent and progressive beacon of hope in the Middle East

Conservative Home, London. Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.  He is also is Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

Solidarity articles usually focus on why the world should help others, but this column starts with how our friends and allies in the Kurdistan Region in Iraq help the world.

Against considerable odds, Kurdistanis proudly promote religious pluralism and liberal democracy.

The Kurds were, and still are, decisive in opposing ISIS, which detests everything they stand for.  It is an extraordinary nation, that was a victim of Saddam Hussein’s genocide and now, is literally now holding the line against ISIS barbarism, is surrounded by enemies and is a vital ally of the free world. These are just a few reasons why I care so deeply about this region’s future.

As a people who know persecution and exile all too well, Kurdistan has generously hosted over a million refugees and displaced people in the last decade.

After decades of isolation, it craves connections to the developed world in trade, science, education and health. This small country of six million people, twice the size of Wales, has over 30 universities. I have had the privilege of visiting two of them, during my six visits to Kurdistan since 2010, and have seen the outstanding higher education they offer alongside the aspiration of students to get on the ladder of opportunity.

That is why the Kurdistan Region All-Party Parliamentary Group (which I chair) argues that the UK should recognise Kurdistani academic qualifications so students can pay to continue their education here and develop academic links. We are also encouraging UK aid for projects to alleviate mental illness, which is the bitter fruit of decades of genocide and war.

Kurdistanis are going to need great resilience for a painful reform process that needs tough-minded technical expertise from us and others as well as great efforts to overcome deep-seated internal divisions. Furthermore, they have to deal with Baghdad’s often hostile and hectoring stances. Baghdad leaders have regularly turned federal budgets on and off in centralist efforts to unconstitutionally constrain Kurdistan.

Many Iraqi Kurdistanis spent years in the UK, and John Major and Tony Blair are revered for helping save them from the genocides under Saddam Hussein in 1991 and 2003.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) embraced parliamentary democracy after its 1991 uprising. KRG MPs tell me that they are anxious to develop a system of Select Committees, similar to the British House of Commons.

But Iraqi Kurdistan is still saddled with typical problems of the Middle East. That includes underdeveloped institutions and civil society, big state employment rolls, political patronage, and a small private sector.

I have seen their fortunes ebb and flow for myself on my visits.  Covid-19, however, is a huge game-changer. Decisive action initially limited deaths, but a second spike is sadly claiming even more lives.

The Coronavirus has also slashed oil prices and revenues that account for over 90 percent of Kurdistani and Iraqi incomes. This further widened Kurdistan’s spending deficit and deepened its debt. Public salaries have been reduced, more for higher than lower paid employees, but payments are now five months in arrears.

Oil prices may recover but their volatility is an enduring problem and highlights the need for radical economic diversification to boost light industry, agriculture, and mass tourism after Covid. There’s untapped potential in Kurdistan’s hills, mountains, ski resorts, and plains. It could become more self-sufficient in food.

Tourism from the Middle East was flourishing before the pandemic. However, the KRG would hugely benefit from many more western visitors to this safe and stable nation. Take my word for it: you will be bowled over by the stunning beauty of the countryside, its extraordinary heritage and the hospitality of the cities.

Solar power, wind power, and turning natural gas into electricity are feasible goals. Large Kurdistani gas reserves could eventually help both Iraq and Europe diversify their supplies, long a UK and EU policy goal. Kurdistani ministers are also developing a law on exploiting its minerals sector.

Baghdad has barely helped the Kurdistan Regional Government look after a million displaced Sunni Arabs from Mosul. An Iraqi parliamentary committee is mean-mindedly demanding the return of weaponry abandoned by the Iraqi Army when it fled from Daesh in Mosul in 2014. The Peshmerga used the kit against Daesh and much of it is spent.

The Kurdistanis are, however, yet again seeking to make Iraq work, with commendable imagination and pragmatism, and have senior positions in the new Iraqi government, whose Prime Minister seems to be keen on a deal.

Baghdad needs to adopt a Better Together approach so that it and Kurdistanis can build a reliable and institutionalised relationship based on the constitution rather than whim.

The historical reflex of kicking Kurdistanis for short-term popularity should be abandoned. It is high time Baghdad proved that it wants the Kurds to remain as equals or let them go their own way. It’s also high time that the UN used its good offices to broker agreements.

This matters to us all. The awkward relationship between Baghdad and Erbil means there is a swathe of ungoverned territory between their armies where Daesh is regrouping. Increasing military co-operation and using the competent Peshmerga can stop Daesh gaining footholds that will then cost more in lives and defence spending to regain.

A reliable compact between Erbil and Baghdad is vital to UK interests and our policy of supporting a strong KRG within a strong unified Iraq.

As if that’s not enough, a wave of Turkish bombings against the PKK has killed Kurdistani civilians, made many villages uninhabitable, and disrupted the economy. The KRG rightly says that neither Turkey nor the PKK should infringe its territorial integrity. But a political solution is the key.

The Kurdistan Region has been pummeled by multiple economic, political, security, and humanitarian crises in the last decade and suffered much more in the previous century. Geopolitical volatility, see-sawing oil revenues, and regional power-plays are the norm for a people at the heart of the Middle East vortex.

Our friends in Kurdistan deserve more attention in our developing foreign and security policy as the Middle East matters massively to global peace and economics as well as emerging rivalries between the democratic and authoritarian worlds.

The world needs Kurdistan to survive and thrive as a decent and progressive beacon of hope in the Middle East.