By Chris Bowers, British Consul General
All good things have to come to an end. After one season short of two years, dear reader, I will be returning to London to spend more time with my family. This will be my last column as HM Consul General in Erbil. My successor, a fine and experienced diplomat called Hugh Evans stands in the wings. I know that he is excited to be coming to the Kurdistan Region.
I hope, dear reader, that through these columns you have been able to read something of what we in the UK think important in the Kurdistan Region and beyond.
What have I learned in my time here?
I have learned that 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. I have been thrilled to see that within that context Britain retains a special place in the affections of many Kurds. From what I can distil, when a Kurd meets a Brit they assume a knowledge and understanding of the ways of the region, a commitment to quality, a sense of humour and a belief in fairness. Many Kurds have told me their memories about how the UK led in establishing no fly zones in 1991-2 and the role of our soldiers and our airmen as they helped Kurds laid the foundations of what we see today. It is humbling to be here and it is our duty as representatives of Britain to build on these strong foundations.
I have learned that Kurdish cities are cities of possibilities. There is an energy and a dynamism here; a desire to get things done.
There are two strong underpinnings to democracy here: a commitment to market values, a commitment to debate within society and a belief in tolerance. I have seen an understanding of market deliver electricity, better services and a flood of oil companies to the Region. Even during the demonstrations in Sulaimani there was a dialogue between all sides. And I recall the generous and natural welcome the authorities gave to Christians fleeing an horrific attack on their church in Baghdad. Those values seem ingrained in the Kurdish psyche. Sure foundations on which to continue to build democratic institutions.
I have learned that this is a region which cannot forget the past and the suffering of previous generations and neither should it. But it is a region determined not to be shaped by the past. The determination I see daily seems to be based on a belief that the best way to pay debts to those who fell in the name of freedom is to build a Kurdistan Region of which they would be proud.
The appetite for change and progress requires brave decisions. We have seen that in laws designed to protect women and in the way that Kurdish leaders have reached out to former adversaries among their neighbours. There are, undoubtedly, tough decisions ahead. Does it really make long-term financial sense, for example, to have so many people in the state sector? Do the political parties need to be in such a strong position?
There are many challenges that will come in the next few years that will be daunting but surmountable: bringing Kurdistan’s financial services sector into line with the modern world, developing infrastructure to meet the demands of a significant world hydrocarbon producer and bringing a richer administration closer to the people and delivering better services to them, to name a few.
Much of Kurdistan Region’s future will be intrinsically linked to how well it can manage its relationships with Baghdad and Ankara. Oil and gas are at the heart of that. The market logic of Kurdish new and significant supplies meeting Turkey’s energy demand looks overwhelming. That presents a challenge to Baghdad. How to secure the best deal for Kurdistan will be the dominant issue in the next few years.
As Kurdistan goes through this, the Region will be able to count on an ever-closer relationship with Britain. I believe we have a lot to offer. Kurds know that the advice we give on Iraqi and regional politics in what will remain a troubled region is motivated by a long history and tradition and has the best interests of the Region at its core. Our universities, among the very best in the world, provide an ideal route for Kurds wanting to study abroad. Our businesses are committed to quality and are here in ever growing numbers. If Kurdistan does produce one million barrels of oil per day by 2015 it will be largely due to the work of UK companies. The Anglo-Turkish company Genel, alone predicts that it will produce 500,000 bpd by 2015. Our know-how and expertise matches Kurdish demands.
I have run out of space but not of fantastic memories. Thank you to everyone I have met in the Region for sharing your thoughts, hopes and ideas with me. It has been an honour to be here.
My conclusion, though, is simple: I think the Kurdistan Region is going to be and do just fine. The people deserve it.
Chris Bowers is British consul general in Erbil.