How would you describe the current state of relations between the UK and the Kurdistan Region? Which areas have you prioritized in terms of bilateral relations?
Relations between the UK and the Kurdistan Region were already strong and have been reinforced further during the difficult months of mid-2014, as the Kurdistan Region and wider Iraq faced multiple crises. The visit of the PM, Nechirvan Barzani, to London in May 2014 underlined the strong political, economic, and commercial ties.
Over 100 British companies now operate in the Kurdistan Region. As well as the Consulate – which includes a dedicated UK Trade & Investment (UKTI) team – the British Council, the National School of Government International, and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy actively support the Kurdistan Region’s institutions and society. We now have a Visa Application Centre in Erbil. In the UK, business leaders, parliamentarians, and many others are champions for public and private sector engagement here. As I have travelled the Kurdistan Region in my first months in the job, I have been enthused by the strength of people-to-people links, not least the many graduates from British universities. This should all be celebrated.
Of course, the events of summer 2014 shook confidence. But the UK, the Government of Iraq, and the KRG have a shared interest in defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). In these last few months, the UK has been at the forefront of international support for the KRG. We have provided the Kurdish authorities with significant military support, including weapons and training. The UK is the third largest donor to Iraq in its humanitarian crisis, and we are active on the ground to improve the response. We have also welcomed the formation of Haider al-Abadi's Government in Baghdad, supporting its efforts to rebuild Iraqi political consensus– including a new entente between Baghdad and the KRG. Our diplomatic engagement underpins this – four UK Cabinet Ministers visited Erbil in little more than four months.
Even in these months of crisis, however, we have not diminished our support for the KRG's reform agenda and we have encouraged British businesses to remain focused on the long-term opportunities that the Kurdistan Region offers, even if businesses are obliged to adapt to the current uncertainties. In every ministry I visit, in every city I visit, in every business sector, there are examples of the UK working in support of the Kurdistan Region's security, resilience, and prosperity.
How have recent regional developments affected risk perceptions of the Kurdistan Region?
The developments of summer 2014 unnerved businesses and residents alike. We encourage all UK citizens - employers, residents, and visitors - to consult FCO Travel Advice for Iraq and follow its recommendations. But– provided they do that, operate here with their eyes open, and make robust contingency plans– there is work to be done. For those with specialist needs, there are reputable private security companies, including UK market leaders, which can provide additional support.
Considering recent regional developments, do you think the Kurdistan Region remains attractive to the British business community?
Absolutely. The long-term prospects for the Kurdistan Region and, indeed, wider Iraq remain good - a prosperous oil-rich country, a large market, and a neighborhood promising long-term growth. The ambition of the Kurdistan Region's leaders is admirable. The new government in Baghdad provides the opportunity to build a new national consensus. For UK companies, the Consulate's UKTI office and existing British businesses here are willing to make introductions and share expertise. Our Embassy in Baghdad, with its own UKTI office, is equally active. Working together, we can help companies identify opportunities across Iraq.
Even in these months of crisis, however, we have not diminished our support for the KRG's reform agenda and we have encouraged British businesses to remain focused on the long-term opportunities that the Kurdistan Region offers, even if businesses are obliged to adapt to the current uncertainties.
It is inevitable that the current uncertainty has generated some hesitancy on the part of international businesses, but UK corporate leaders I speak to recognize the opportunities and potential here. Our trade delegations continue to visit – even when others haven’t – and are well received by the Kurdistan Region’s government and business leaders. Companies back home continue to maintain an active interest in the Region, assisted by UKTI, British Expertise, the Middle East Association, the KRG Delegation in London, and others. If any British companies remain hesitant, I encourage them to speak to local experts in the Erbil and Baghdad UKTI teams.
What are your medium-term expectations regarding the political and economic progress of the Kurdistan Region?
What the KRG and the people have achieved in the last decade is impressive. I am confident there is more to come. Certainly the UK - both Government and private sector – is actively working toward that goal as part of our efforts in wider Iraq. As to what is required to achieve that, it is certainly in the KRG's best interests to be on good terms with Baghdad and cooperating closely in the fight against terrorism. At the time of this interview [November 2014], there are some encouraging signals in this regard. UK diplomacy is actively working to bring the two sides towards agreement on the issues, whether the budget, security coordination, or meeting the needs of the many displaced Iraqis.
In the longer term, there needs to be greater opportunity for the private sector. We encourage reforms that strengthen the Kurdistan Region's institutions and laws, including pro-business legislation. Certainly there is a lot of debate here on the necessary next steps, including opening up the financial sector. It is heartening that the KRG continues to invest in education, and we play a lead role through the British Council, UK private sector, and FCO Chevening Scholarships. Indeed, we intend in 2015 that more Chevening Scholarships will be awarded to candidates from the Kurdistan Region than ever before. We are doing similar elsewhere in Iraq. The coming months will be challenging, but our commitment is strong. It means that the Consulate team has its work cut out, but recent events failed to diminish our commitment, ambition, or energy – if anything they have been doubled. In this, we work with the Kurdistan Region’s decision-makers and people not only as partners, but also as friends.