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Kurdistan and the UK: forging stronger links

Article - January 11, 2013
Foreign Secretary William Hague's decision to expand the British Consulate in Kurdistan signals his intent to strengthen diplomatic and trade ties with Iraq's most prosperous region
Since the ending of the war in Iraq in 2011, diplomatic and trade ties have never been stronger between Britain and Kurdistan. Government representatives from both the UK and Kurdistan are urging British businesses to be part of the Iraqi autonomous region’s bright and prosperous future. Foreign investment, particularly from Britain, has been pouring in and there have been exciting developments in its oil and gas, financial, real estate and energy sectors.

The region is Iraq’s most progressive, economically developed and safest. Kurdistan was shielded from some of the more devastating effects of the eight-year war and now, thanks to both diligent security and the determination of its people, it remains a safe haven, free from terrorist attacks. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is eager to tell the world that this peaceful and flourishing region is open for business and hungry for change.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague recently announced his intention to increase staffing levels at the British Consulate in Erbil, Kurdistan’s capital, signaling his intent to further strengthen diplomatic and trade ties. In a statement released by the Foreign Office, Mr Hague said: “the review of our resources in Iraq has confirmed that the Kurdistan Region continues to attract significant interest from British businesses.”

Mr Hague pointed out that recently over 40 British companies had attended the Erbil International Trade Fair, which was supported by UK Trade and Investment (UKTI). He also announced that a UKTI Commercial Attaché would be appointed to widen the Consulate General’s already successful commercial section. Finally, the Foreign Secretary said the British Consulate-General in Erbil will be maintained “on a permanent footing.”

The consulate at Erbil was established in 2011 in recognition of the need for a more permanent diplomatic base in Kurdistan. “We remain deeply impressed with the success of Erbil,” Britain’s Minister for the Middle East, Alistair Burt, said at a recent London conference hosted by the KRG.

Kurdistan’s thriving economy attracted a total of $3 billion in foreign investment during the first six months of 2012, which looks to be a record year; total foreign investment for the past five years was $17 billion.

More than 450 foreign companies are registered to do business in the region, whose GDP rose 8 per cent in 2011, when the jobless rate was only 6 per cent.

British businessmen are among those showing interest in Kurdistan. Companies currently operating in the area include Heritage, Gulf Keystone and Sterling, all of which have made significant investments in Kurdistan’s oil and gas sector; construction and engineering firm Parsons Brinkerhoff; Jones Lang Lasalle and BTW Shiells, who have helped to develop Kurdistan’s ultra-modern, multi-million-pound shopping malls; HSBC and Standard Chartered, the only two global banks in Kurdistan; as well as four world leaders in accountancy services, KPMG, Deloitte, PWC and Ernst and Young.

Relations between Britain and Kurdistan have been very warm for the best part of 20 years. In 1991 – when Saddam Hussein’s troops were launching a series of attacks against Kurdistan – then-prime minister Sir John Major led the move to have the United Nations declare Kurdistan a safe-haven and a ‘no-fly’ zone.

The decision saved the lives of thousands of Kurds and later led to the establishment of the Kurdistan Regional Government. The people of Kurdistan still hold a deep gratitude to Britain for its role in helping them become a safe and autonomous region with its own democratically elected government.

Today, according to former British Consul General to Kurdistan, Chris Bowers, “there is a huge appetite in the Kurdistan Region to engage with the international community, primarily the West, to make up for the lost decades of isolation... within that context, Britain retains a special place in the affections of many Kurds.”

Mr Bowers also stated that: “One of the roles of the Consulate General is to tell UK companies that Kurdistan is open for business and to come and see it for themselves.”