THE BLOG

Important New Phase in Anglo-Kurdish Relations

28/05/2014 13:06 BST | Updated 27/07/2014 10:59 BST

When I first visited the Kurdistan Region in 2006, I had no idea that I would still be going there, as the Director of a cross party group building bridges between our countries or, indeed, writing this column nearly a decade later.

I had originally gone to Kurdistan as part of a Labour Friends of Iraq delegation. Baghdad was too dangerous, as I found out nearly to my cost a few years later. We met trade union leaders from across Iraq in what was a fairly unusual summit meeting at the Sheraton.

We also met the Kurdistan Communist Party one of whose leaders told us, to paraphrase a little, that "we don't have a bourgeoisie, can we borrow yours." I think the term he used was "national capitalist class" and at that point the penny, or should that be the dinar, dropped. We were there to offer solidarity to the trade unions but a labour movement can only thrive if the economy grows and, in this case, that required foreign investment and expertise to overcome decades of destruction, dictatorship, sanctions and isolation.

When we returned from Kurdistan, myself and other MPs met Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, then the relatively new KRG High Representative and the next year established the all-party group which has since then made commercial connections one of its priorities.

It was tough going at first because potential partners either didn't know where Kurdistan was or were wary when they found out it was in Iraq. There was a wider assumption that the priority should be the Iraqi south, not least as our soldiers were based mainly in Basra.

As time has gone on, the attraction of Kurdistan has become more obvious and we have become more focussed in our suggestions for action by British actors. Our delegation last November spawned a report which urged several actions including: a Commons debate on UK relations with the Kurdistan Region of Iraq; a Foreign Affairs Select Committee inquiry; an official visit by the KRG Prime Minister; and the appointment of a Trade Envoy.

We had the debate in January, the Select Committee is currently doing an inquiry, the Trade Envoy has been appointed and Prime Minister Barzani recently concluded his first official visit to the UK. We hosted a dinner for him and several KRG Ministers in the House of Lords where Nadhim Zahawi highlighted the agreement between the PM and the British Foreign Secretary William Hague to establish a new mechanism to keep the momentum of the visit going.

The details are, I understand, being worked out but the KRG media release talks about "developing a clear mechanism which would ensure senior-level follow up and implementation of agreements."

William Hague said that "The Prime Minister's visit is a chance to celebrate the warm relations between the UK and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, with links in areas as diverse as trade, education, and culture, and to reaffirm the UK's desire to remain the Region's partner of choice on all of these issues."

Prime Minister Barzani expressed his full support for the KRG's robust and mutually beneficial partnership with the United Kingdom and is quoted as saying that "This meeting was an important step in solidifying an already successful partnership with the UK, as well as exploring new avenues for cooperation. We highly value this relationship and are pleased to see it progress in this way."

All this represents considerable progress since 2006. You could then count on the fingers of one, maybe two, hands the number of British bodies involved in Kurdistan. Once there were just three companies and now there are 123 registered British companies.

Our group has helped encourage this change but many others have been pioneers in developing the Anglo-Kurdish link. These include the Middle East Association, British Expertise, the UK Trade and Investment body, the British Council and ably assisted and encouraged by the High Representation in London.

A sign of progress is that we no longer know the full range of British interests. No one is obliged to tell us what they are doing. It would be very useful to seek an accurate and comprehensive picture of the scope and scale of British engagement which can then be used to identify gaps and encourage them to be filled.

Trade and investment are just one part of the equation. Cultural, educational and political links are also vital in providing mutual benefit to the Kurdistan Region and the UK as well as Iraq and the wider Middle East. This week's visit by PM Barzani has opened an important new phase in Anglo-Kurdish relations. It's a far cry from 2006.