The Forum brought together many of the most influential and distinguished figures shaping the modern Middle East, and set a high standard for conferences in Kurdistan and Iraq. The theme of this year’s Forum was “Navigating the Challenges of the Middle East,” and covered many challenging topics, including Iraqi and Kurdish political difficulties and economic opportunities, panels on Syria, Turkey and Iran, and thematic panels on investing in Iraq and Kurdistan, energy sector development, water and environmental issues, and sociopolitical challenges. With over 300 guests in attendance, the Forum convened speakers including the Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, prominent American, European, Turkish, Iranian, and Iraqi politicians and diplomats, and several prominent members of the academic, business, media, and NGO communities.

PM Nechirvan Barzani delivered the opening keynote speech, remarking on what he saw as the challenges that the Kurdistan Region would face through 2014 and beyond. The PM discussed the KRG’s relations with Baghdad amid ongoing challenges over energy revenue sharing, and the KRG’s right to independent energy exports. PM Barzani was resolute in his convictions, stating that while Kurdistan is committed to following the Constitution of Iraq, that “We have a constitutional right to use the national resources of this Region, and we have made it clear that we will neither regress nor relinquish our rights.”

We have a constitutional right to use the national resources of this Region, and we have made it clear that we will neither regress nor relinquish our rights. Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani

However, Prime Minister Barzani was much more optimistic regarding the KRG’s relations with Turkey, and described the partnership as strong. He went on to address the formation of the KRG’s new government, stating that the 8th Cabinet would be “inclusive,” “broad based,” and “representative of the election results.” Speaking on the role of the US in Middle East, PM Barzani was again mildly critical, describing the current US Administration as problematically disengaged in the region.

Following PM Barzani, the initial panel featured Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraq’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, and was moderated by Dr. Barham Salih, former Prime Minister of the KRG and current Chairman of AUIS. The Forum took on an optimistic tone when Foreign Minister Davutoglu took the podium and began his speech in Kurdish. The symbolic gesture was met by the audience with delighted surprise. The Foreign Minister went on to affirm PM Barzani’s confidence in relations between the KRG and Ankara, in a professorial and diplomatic address. While FM Davutoglu would prefer to see an oil sharing agreement unify policy across Iraq, he said that Turkey would import oil and gas from the partners he had available to him, suggesting that he supports bilateral energy collaboration between his government and the KRG. The FM also stressed his optimistic outlook regarding the economic potential of Iraq, noting that between its vast energy supply and quickly expanding human resources, “Iraq has more economic potential than any other country in the region.”

As an issue that is central both to Iraq’s economy and politics, much of the Forum focused on Iraqi and Kurdish energy policy. While oil policy was a recurrent theme throughout the Forum, a panel that focused specifically on oil policy in Iraq brought several influential speakers together to address the issues directly. Michael Howard, an advisor to Dr. Ashti Hawrami, the KRG’s Minister of Natural Resources, provided a summary of the actions, as well as goals and targets, of the KRG’s Ministry of Natural Resources. Howard then provided a technocratic analysis of the Iraqi Constitution, concluding that oil production and export is decisively within the federal rights of the Kurdistan Region. He noted that oil exports from the Region will surge, as new export channels are opened and production gets underway from the Region’s oilfields: “The Kurdistan Region is in the process of rapid transition—a positive transition—to develop its natural resources.” Exports will reach 400,000 barrels per day (bpd) by the end of 2014, and the MNR is targeting 1 million bpd by the end of 2015, and 2 million by 2020. Gas exports, which are particularly important for Turkey, will commence in 2016. As such, Howard noted, “The KRG has proven that it can be a crucial partner to Turkey and the broader international community.” He also stressed that export earnings from the KRG will lead to billions of additional revenue for Iraq’s treasury, stating that, “success in the KRG will also mean success in Iraq.”

Murat Ozcelik, Turkey’s former ambassador to Iraq, and one of the central figures in Turkey’s rapprochement with the KRG, spoke about the process of increasing his country’s ties to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. While the Turkey/KRG relationship is often framed in terms of energy cooperation, Murat Ozcelik stressed the broadness of the relationship, and the several non-energy related reasons for the close ties. These include cooperation in security and non-oil trade, as well as regional stability, and domestic improvements with Turkey’s Kurdish population.

Moving into energy policy, Murat Ozcelik discussed how the difference between Iraq’s Technical Service Contracts (TSCs) and the KRG’s Production Sharing Contracts (PSCs) made sense to Turkey’s diplomats and oil companies, as the TSCs serve southern Iraq’s mature fields well, and PSCs brought new investment and exploration to the Kurdistan Region. The way that Turkey understands the situation, stated Ozcelik, is that export of oil from Iraq, with or without a national hydrocarbon law, enriches all of Iraq through the revenue produced. “We should not allow the Iraqi people to lose out,” he stated.

A panel on ‘The Realities of Investing in Iraq’ brought together foreign and local investors and businesspeople to discuss Iraq’s investment environment. Perhaps the most influential panelist in the discussion was Faruk Mustafa Rasool, Chairman of Faruk Group Holding, one of the largest companies in the Kurdistan Region and Iraq. Rasool discussed the radical transformation that he and Faruk Group have contributed to in the Kurdistan Region. Beginning as a small telecommunications company in the 1990s, soon after the Kurdistan Region’s attainment of autonomy allowed the company to begin operations, Faruk Group now holds Asiacell, the largest publicly traded company in Iraq, in addition to several companies in industry, healthcare, insurance, finance, and other sectors. He was also excited to announce the imminent opening of Faruk Medical Center, which will bring healthcare provision in Iraq and Kurdistan to impressive new highs. In addition to these projects, Faruk Group is committed to further developing Slemani and the Kurdistan Region through new investment in emerging sectors such as agriculture, tourism, and the improvement of infrastructure.

Faruk Mustafa Rasool believes in hiring the most talented workforce he can, and argued that finding talent is more important, and often more challenging, than finding financing for his projects. While this has led him to repeatedly bring foreign expertise into the Region to lead and staff his companies, his goal is to further develop the Kurdistan Region’s human capacity. Faruk Group is accomplishing this through staff training, as well as the maintenance of best practices and international professional standards in his companies.

Ziad Badr, Iraq Country Manager at the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) discussed some of the opportunities and challenges of investing in Kurdistan and Iraq, and demonstrated that many of those challenges could be overcome. As manager of the IFC’s portfolio in Iraq, Badr has invested heavily into many of Iraq’s and the Kurdistan Region’s premier companies, including the Erbil Rotana Hotel, Lafarge/Faruk Group cement operations, Zain Telecom, the Credit Bank of Iraq, the Commercial Bank of Iraq, and others. While Badr noted that he does face challenges related to weak accounting standards at many local firms, finding human resources, and firm transparency, these challenges can be overcome through use of independent auditing of businesses, and improved training in international business practices. Overall, he is optimistic regarding the country’s investment climate: “Iraq has a healthy economy, with a healthy inflation rate and increased foreign direct investment into the country. There is substantial upside potential for investors and government is keen to support the private sector.”