Why Kurds matter to the Middle East

If Britain is an island made mainly of coal surrounded by fish, as Aneurin Bevan said, then landlocked Iraqi Kurdistan is made mainly of oil and sometimes surrounded by sharks.

Covid has given Kurdistan’s oil and that of the wider Middle East a proper kicking by suddenly slashing demand and revenues. Action on climate change will further suppress demand and should drive renewable energies in a much more mixed economy of power and income. The sun in the middle of the Kurdish flag should become more than symbolic.

Great but immediately unlucky for the Kurds as Baghdad governments long scuppered Kurdistan’s energy exploitation and the Kurds were only starting a new energy sector from scratch when I first visited there in 2006.

Some leaders privately worried that oil would distort their political economy as oil prices are volatile and often suffocate other economic sectors. But the bonanza was too big to ignore and initially boosted living standards and infrastructure.

Furthermore, Kurdistan relies on a share of Iraqi revenues that also flow overwhelmingly from oil. Revenue-sharing theoretically underpins the new Iraq’s federalism but has been ignored in practice by Baghdad governments that under-delivered or turned the tap on and off in the post-Saddam era.

Kurdistani leaders increasingly talk about diversifying the economy to earn a crust from underdeveloped agriculture, tourism, and light industry. Economic reform also requires a progressive tax system, a modern financial sector, paying for precious utilities such as water and electricity, and more private businesses. But transition is painful, takes time, and is even more difficult as oil revenues evaporate.

We neglect at our common peril further weakening of Kurdistan in any post-oil and post-Covid turmoil. Predominantly moral arguments to engage with the Kurds won’t cut the hummus (sorry) in straitened times.

We need a hard-headed case for helping Iraqi Kurds to start over. Security is key. Kurds tore the guts out of Daesh in Syria and in the Kurdistan Region where fascism came within 15 miles of the capital, Erbil in 2014. Iraqi Kurds resisted Daesh for three long years with vastly inferior military kit while the Iraqi Army recovered from its humiliating defeat in Mosul and the capture by Daesh of sophisticated military hardware. If the Kurds had folded before the final joint push in 2017, Daesh would still be powerful— although it hasn’t entirely vanished.

Kurdistan respects different religious and ethnic groups and greater gender equality. That helps explain why they doggedly defied Daesh and rescued thousands of abducted and abused Yezidi women. These assets make the Kurds a progressive, defence ally.

The Kurdistan Region’s six million people are also part of a roughly forty million-strong, if often neglected, Kurdish component of the Middle East mosaic. Kurds live in four countries on two continents that account for 200 million people or about half the population of 17 countries in the Middle East. Two of those countries, Iran and Turkey, are the most populous. And Iraqi Kurdistan hosts many non-Muslim peoples such as Christians and Yezidis. The size and location of Kurdish populations gives them a crucial weight as one people, if not one territorial unit, now or maybe forever.

Iraqi Kurdistan is also the only internationally recognised autonomous region with the most advanced economy. It must respect the norms of international relations and not allow groups to use its territory to attack its neighbours. The Kurdistan Region’s foreign affairs minister recently told British MPs that the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has declared “liberated” territory in Iraqi Kurdistan. “From whom” was his trenchant follow-up. The democratic authority of the KRG must be respected by all.

There are two opposing possibilities in the Middle East. First, the reduced economic weight of oil disrupts societies and encourages extremism. Second, countries embrace sustainable economies and civil society and youth as well as estranged neighbours for economic and then political co-operation. Both scenarios require strong partners such as Kurdistan that don’t merely survive from hand to mouth or succumb to division or worse.

Covid’s economic impact is damaging the social compact in Iraqi Kurdistan. The accumulated misery over many years of public sector wage arrears and increased poverty and unemployment recently resulted in violent protests in Slemani, the second city. Government and opposition party offices as well as public buildings were razed and demonstrators and security officials were killed and injured.

I admire Iraqi Kurdistan but have also seen its flaws and paradoxes over the years. It is resilient in the face of continued crises but lacks sufficient dynamism and enterprise. Its public sector is large but largely unproductive. Corruption is corrosive but less industrially than the rest of Iraq. Large amounts pilfered from public and private purses are dwarfed by Baghdad’s shortchanging and collapsing oil revenues. It has a proud history of resisting tyranny, but its youth often know little of past triumphs against adversity and some of the “Shisha generation” are disconnected.

Iraq and Kurdistan face existential crises and the wider outlook in the region is bleak. The declining salience of the black gold that prompted imperialist carve-ups a century ago could now destabilise the Middle East and spur Islamist radicalisation that can infect larger Muslim-majority countries outside the region.

But there is less international appetite for judicious support for allies who ask for our technical and political expertise as well as investment. America is more immune as the world’s biggest oil and gas producer and has been less willing under Trump to mediate, though President Biden may turn the dial somewhat.

Labour in opposition and in government cannot ignore these emerging crises. But bitter disputes about the 2003 invasion of Iraq freeze fresh thinking about the region as it is now. Corbyn even opposed the RAF defending Erbil and saving Kobani in Kurdish Syria from Daesh.

Labour’s 2004 conference adopted a policy, which I helped write, of recognising honourable differences on the invasion but uniting to support Iraqis rebuilding their country. We never fully embraced that and should re-engage as the Middle East awkwardly adjusts to new resource realities. In that, the Kurds are numerically small but pivotal. A new seriousness about these challenges and Kurdish allies matters immensely.

Gary Kent, who writes in a personal capacity, has been a Labour Party member since 1976, is Secretary of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Kurdistan Region, an honorary professor at Soran University in Kurdistan, and Deputy Chair in Erbil of the European Centre for Technology and Training. APPG reports are at http://www.appgkurdistan.org.uk/?p=745. He tweets @garykent