Remarks by the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq on Post-COVID-19 Economic Priorities in Kurdistan
Thank you for that kind introduction, Ross.
As many of you know, my friend Ross has a long history with the Kurdish people. I first met him shortly after 2003, under unusual circumstances. We were at war, helping Americans and Iraqis remove a vicious dictator; our immediate future inside Iraq increasingly uncertain, and the hopes of generations of Kurds tied to getting right the relationship with the international community.
It wasn’t easy. And though Iraq was never far from the news, my message to Ross was simple: invest in Kurdistan’s future.
And it’s in that spirit that we meet here today. Only this time, Ross and other friends are helping me encourage other Americans to join us on this journey.
Before I go further, I want to thank the organisers — in particular Steve Lutes and Bayan Khan — for bringing us together today. I also want to thank colleagues from the U.S. government for joining, including Deputy Secretary of Energy Mark Menezes; Ambassador Matthew Tueller, Joey, David, Rob and the team in Erbil. I also want to thank Ambassador Fareed Yaseen for being with us.
And, of course, I welcome the many American and Kurdish companies gathered here by the U.S. and Kurdistan chambers of commerce. You have the potential to strengthen an already strong relationship — a relationship that grew in earnest in the 1990s when the comfort of U.S. air patrols restored hope for our people. It gave us an opportunity to rebuild the thousands of villages destroyed by the former regime and restore the dynamism of the Kurdish people — and embark on a journey to undo mindset of dependency purposefully engineered by the former regime.
And on a day like this I think it’s fitting that we pause for a moment to reflect on our progress.
The United States and Kurdistan have a decades-long partnership. In 2021, we will mark 30 years since Operation Provide Comfort spawned our modern relationship. In recent years, our soldiers and security forces have worked in partnership to combat terrorism and protect our countries and our ways of life from shared threats. We are indebted to these heroic men and women for keeping us safe and free.
Their sacrifice is what has helped Kurdistan today remain as one of the most stable, safe and prosperous regions in Iraq and even the Middle East and beyond. Businesses, local and foreign, can operate here knowing that the government and security forces provide a safe and secure environment.
But the US-Kurdistan relationship goes far beyond security and defence. For many years now, mutually beneficial partnerships have continued to emerge and transform this relationship. Many major US brands have found a profitable market in our region, creating thousands of jobs, teaching vital skills and, in doing so, improving lives.
So I am delighted to join you today because it allows me to underline the commitment of my government to supporting high-quality foreign investment in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, particularly from the United States.
And we’re making it easier to unlock that potential quickly.
My government has begun a series of far-reaching reforms across a wide range of areas and sectors. The changes are transformational. We are working hard to diversify our economy, through privatization of parts of agriculture and electricity sectors. We are making it easier to do business by digitising important aspects of our government.
We are strengthening tax laws — to better harness revenues and ensure everyone pays their fair share. We are also streamlining the business of doing business, by modernizing our banking sector. Introducing best practice technology is a major part of all of this, and one where I particularly welcome US expertise.
Hydrocarbons will remain essential components of the KRG’s economic output. I am pleased to announce recent progress Secretary Dan Brouillette and I have made on a number of fronts in this sector to unlock greater US investment. We welcome international investment in all sectors of our economy, from healthcare and education, to green energy, manufacturing and agriculture.
My government is also working to reduce red tape to ensure that foreign investors are able to complete necessary procedures more quickly and more easily — from company registrations to visa regulations and permits. The Board of Investment is playing a key role in reviewing and updating our investor-friendly legislation. This means licences issued more quickly, registration procedures streamlined, and the potential for foreign investment opportunities more easily highlighted. During this cabinet, more than 70 licenses have been awarded, with an investment value of almost $2bn.
This is all part of this Cabinet’s reform promise, as outlined in particular in the Reform Law passed at the beginning of this year. We are clamping down on corruption. We have brought more certainty to our public payroll by reducing benefit fraud. Our extensive digitalisation agenda will ensure that government will deliver public services more efficiently, and effectively. These processes will improve the speed and quality of decision-making. And a digital financial management system has already been introduced to bring much-needed savings and accountability to public spending, ensuring that payments are made swiftly and accurately.
This week, in fact, we expect to sign a major deal that will be the basis of our digital transformation agenda, bringing public and government services to the fingertips of citizens, businesses and government bodies.
We are also working hard to ensure that our relationship with the federal government in Baghdad is fair and delivers real outcomes. This is not always straight-forward, and we have our differences. But I am committed to resolving our outstanding issues, including around the KRG’s share of the federal budget — ensuring that all rights and duties are respected and acknowledged, in line with the constitution.
Kurdistan is the ideal gateway for American investors into Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. We have a young, dynamic and highly educated workforce. More young Kurdistanis are now in higher education than ever before. Our young people are digitally literate and innovative. English is widely spoken, as well of course as Kurdish and Arabic. My goal is not only to give our people much-needed jobs but to provide them the tools necessary to unlock their entrepreneurial spirit. That's the only way Kurdistan can grow.
We are a safe haven in a region short on certainty, and we are committed to religious, ethnic and cultural diversity. Like the United States, we believe ensuring individual freedoms is essential to political and economic success.
I would like to spend a few minutes discussing several sectors of our economy that I believe are particularly ripe for foreign investment today. Agriculture can once again become a vital part of the Kurdistan economy, a region that was once called the "bread basket of Iraq". Indeed, what is now Kurdistan was one of the first places in human history to develop agriculture.
Today, our region is hoping to reach economic self-sufficiency in the next five years and to become an exporter to other markets in Iraq and across our borders. With the right investment — and policies — this can be achieved.
Kurdistan region benefits from plentiful arable land and fertile soil, a conducive climate, generations of agricultural expertise and plentiful water resources. We are taking steps to reduce public sector interference, open it up for more investment and diversification, and support our farmers. And we are working hard to update and improve our agricultural infrastructure through the latest modern technology and expertise.
I also believe that there are huge opportunities in Kurdistan Region’s infrastructure development. We are expanding our “green energy” supply, with more and more hydro and solar power generation. We hope to become a regional hub for gas production and storage, with plans to export to Iraq and beyond. Our existing electricity infrastructure is being renewed, with new power plants, dams, solar power plants being built and commissioned. Soon I hope we will be able to guarantee all our citizens electricity generation 24 hours a day, and we are now exporting electricity to other parts of Iraq, delivering for peoples beyond our region. We are investing in improving our roads and other transport infrastructure. In the last few months alone, and in spite of the financial constraints imposed by the coronavirus, I have been proud to take part in the opening of numerous new bridges, roads and expressways. This too has been made possible through public private partnerships.
These major infrastructure projects bring real benefits to the people of Kurdistan, creating jobs and improving lives, and facilitating trade. But they also present, I believe, attractive opportunities for foreign investors to do business in our region.
The whole world faces unprecedented challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic has tested the infrastructure in Kurdistan as it has in the US and globally. But I hope that soon, in 2021, the world will be able slowly to return to normal, that a vaccine or many vaccines will prove to be as successful as recent tests suggest, and that we will be able once again to meet in person, to travel and to engage in face-to-face business dealings. When that moment comes, I hope that many of you will take the opportunity to visit Kurdistan for the first time, or to return after many months or years away. To see for yourselves the changes that are being brought about in Kurdistan by this government and our people.
In closing, I hope this conference will bring US and Kurdish businesses closer together and help to identify opportunities across the entire range of our economy to help realise the vast potential in the Kurdistan Region. For those that are looking at our region for the first time, I encourage you to speak to those who have already invested, to hear from them the successes that can be made and the potential for growth. I also encourage those based in the US to contact the KRG representation in Washington for further information, or to contact directly the Kurdistan Board of Investment.
I wish you all a productive and enjoyable conference over the next couple days, and look forward to seeing many of you in person soon.
Thank you all.