The Arab Spring has overshadowed Kurdistan, which is the safest, most pluralistic and dynamic part of Iraq although persistent social, economic and political problems make it necessary to accelerate reform, deepen democracy and renew its economy.

This is the core message from the UK’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on Kurdistan which met many government and opposition politicians, ministers, business groups, trade unionists, journalists and others in early June – its fifth visit in three years.

We have seen very many positive changes in these years. Cities and towns are changing rapidly for the better, but not yet evenly enough. Electricity, water, education, health and housing surpass the rest of Iraq. Illiteracy has been more than halved in a decade and malaria eliminated. Major waste water treatment and recycling projects are being planned. Kurdistan is exploiting its oil and gas riches commendably and ahead of schedule.

We also highlight obstacles to growth including the need for development of banking, insurance and postal services. Start-up times for private businesses take weeks rather than months, as in the rest of Iraq, but need to be further simplified.

Kurdistan is small but certainly doesn’t lack ambition. If Kurdistan plays its hand wisely, it could have a great future with its huge natural assets of oil, gas, agriculture and heritage plus a growing go-getting mentality. Kurdistan could become self-sufficient and then export energy and food to fund the good society based on traditional Kurdish values of community. Its natural beauty and historic sights are major draws for tourism.
Change requires shaking off the shackles of command and control systems and attitudes. The basic ingredients of a democratic market economy include a smaller but smarter state, an active civil society, a free and professional media system and more private businesses all buttressed by a rules-based culture and independent institutions.
Reform is much harder with divisive and destabilising security threats. Fortunately, Kurdistan has an enviable security record with fewer than 200 terrorist murders since liberation in 2003 and none since 2007. This great success in preventing extremist attacks is a daily struggle that cannot be taken for granted.
Kurdistan willingly seeks to embrace democratic values and its elections have been validated internationally. Kurdistan is also lucky to have a new and larger opposition which can clarify choices for the people and keep government on its toes.
Kurdistan’s embryonic democracy needs more hard work to make its parliament more efficient and credible. Some Westminster practices can be adapted and British parliamentarians are already sharing knowledge.
However, discontent came to the fore this year in Sleimani with a 62-day demonstration against corruption and poor services. Eight demonstrators and two police officers were tragically killed and hundreds of both injured in hotly disputed circumstances.
As well as the current all-party dialogue there is a need for due process against all perpetrators and further measures to uphold free assembly and constitutional rule including training in managing violent demonstrations.
Decades of war, genocide and isolation have resulted in centralised party machines and a large state. The public sector employs two-thirds of the workforce, many on make-work schemes without a comprehensive social security safety net. People are worried about corruption. It’s not enough to say that this is widespread in the Middle East where there is the culture of ‘Wasta’ – people using their connections to bypass normal procedures.
Kurdistan’s efforts to embrace democratic values and a market economy have raised expectations of better standards. There are plans to institutionalise independent appointments and eliminate conflicts of interest. This could be pushed harder and faster to tackle the corruption and inefficiency which undermines Kurdistan’s image, strangles growth and corrodes trust in the system’s capacity to change peacefully and democratically.
Kurdistan now relies on its share of the budget from Baghdad. However, longer term, a fair tax base would help transform people from supplicants into equal citizens. It gives people a powerful incentive to ensure that their hard-earned money goes further and fairly.
Kurdistan’s transition to a dynamic market economy requires convincing and democratic leadership. We are impressed by much innovative thinking about reform of higher education which has been micromanaged by ministers. The new minister, himself a former critic of the government, is pioneering a decentralisation of his powers to lift the dead hand of bureaucracy and liberate staff to do their jobs better.
The capacity of leaders and non-governmental institutions could be nurtured through international exchanges. Unions could develop sharp elbows to ensure social justice is wired into this new start. The idealism of its youth, the majority of Kurds, needs to be tapped or they will be alienated. Exiled Kurds are taking their talents home but the diaspora should be encouraged more assiduously. A larger and independent private sector could also create jobs and provide checks and balances against state power.

A free media is another vital check on power but also embryonic. Few journalists are professionally trained and fair reporting is not ingrained. There is some intimidation and physical attacks and murders, although we are unable to allocate responsibility. We visited the Nalia TV station in Sleimani which was razed but now rebuilt. We trust that perpetrators will be prosecuted.

There is insufficient government transparency due to traditions of secrecy sustained during dictatorship and civil war, the absence of reliable information and mistrust of journalists by officials misquoted or defamed. The result is too little reliable information and too much innuendo. External bodies are helping to modernise the media.

Kurdistan remains, to some extent, a ‘man’s world’ with lesser status for women, ‘honour’ attacks and female genital mutilation. Political leaders seek to overcome these and parliament has banned FGM, forced marriages and child labour. More is needed to tap the potential of women.

Kurdistan’s geography is a given. The picture is mixed. Some regimes seek to destabilise Kurdistan but the warmer detente with Turkey is a big gain, commercially and politically. The key relationship is with Baghdad and we urge resolution of outstanding issues to make federalism work. There are clear arguments for a continued American security presence but this is a matter for Iraq and America.

However, we focus on Britain developing deeper relations with Kurdistan which is pro-British. Yet we sometimes don’t even know where it is. Many just hear ‘Iraq’ and turn away without realising that Kurdistan is open to business and cultural connections. It is a gateway to the rest of the country and a potential role model for the rest of the Middle East as the Arab Spring takes root.

Kurdistan is not perfect, as many on all sides told us, although we were most struck by the opposition MP who outlined its problems but added that things are good in essence. We believe that Kurdistan is an inspiring success story in the making which deserves stronger support from the UK and the wider international community.
Gary Kent is administrator of the APPG but writes in a personal capacity