By Chris Bowers, British Consul General in Erbil. This article was originally published by Rudaw, and is re-published with permission by Iraq Business News.
Whenever I travel to downtown Erbil from our consulate in the northern reaches of the city, I am struck by the pace of change. Erbil, and much of the rest of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), is unrecognizable from even ten years ago. Sometimes one can see the changes weekly. Only the mountains stay the same. And that is a great thing.
It is almost as if Kurdistan has a pent-up energy, like a spring uncoiling. Isolated for more than two long decades, the region is stretching, awakening and growing. For those of us who have watched Kurdistan for a while from a distance, it is a joy to behold this process up close as the region makes a ‘dash for modernity.’
For me, this opening is most easily seen in the enthusiasm across the government, society and ordinary people to engage with the outside world. I see that on a daily basis in the faces of the students outside our office waiting to apply for and receive visas to study in the United Kingdom as part of the prime minister’s Human Capacity Programme. We are delighted that so many are choosing to come to the UK; delighted and proud, and we are doing all we can to make the visa process as simple as possible.
Of course, young people want to travel and see the world. But in most of the students that I see, I note a thirst for new ideas, for new ways of doing things and a drive to bring what they learn in the UK back to Kurdistan.
That’s why we want to be Iraqi Kurdistan’s partner of choice in education: it’s good for the UK and it’s good for Kurdistan.
Change and new thinking is good. But it is rarely an easy process. I have a strong sense of where Kurdistan wants to go: a modern, prosperous, open society respected beyond its borders. But what is it that it wants to leave behind and move away from?
A simplistic answer would be tradition. But it is not that straightforward. This nation rejoices in its traditions, I see that in Newroz, in the solidarity of belonging and identity and particularly in music.
But there are some traditions that seem to have no place in a modern and changing Kurdish society: the practice that said that it was OK to kill a member of your own family and get away with it, so-called ‘honor killings’; the tradition that treated women as less able than men; the tradition that said Kurds should not engage in a meaningful way with Baghdad – perfectly understandable under Saddam – is also being left behind. In fact, in the last few months Erbil has taken a lead in bringing Iraqi politicians together.
These and other changes need consensus. Some will want to move quicker than others. Others will see merit in moving slower. What is most encouraging though is to see Kurds debating these issues freely. It is only through debate that society finds equilibrium and can move forward together.
People sometimes ask me, why aren’t there more UK businesses here in the KRG. Well, there are more than you would think and I hope to answer that question in future columns. But I would counter that it is ideas that change the world and develop nations. And that is what I expect the scholars going to the UK to come back with: ideas and ‘know-how’ for change.