Angus McKee recently took part in an interview where he discussed his departure as British Consul in Kurdistan and his return to London. The economic status of Kurdistan, he believes, will recover with encouragement and support from Britain.
How do you look at your time in Kurdistan?
Angus McKee: I arrived in June 2014, at a difficult time, as Daesh (the Islamic State- ISIS) had just captured Mosul, and was threatening the Nineveh Plain and the Kurdistan Region. A time of conflict and atrocities. Daesh is still a threat, but my time here has been defined by the counter attack. We’ve seen the Peshmerga, the Iraqi security forces and the coalition forces pushing Daesh back. Daesh is a failing state, as it is losing territory. It is a terrorist threat whether you are in the streets of Baghdad, Erbil or London. We have a collective interest of defeating it. As a result of this, the relationship between Britain and Kurdistan Region has widened and deepened.
Daesh is a terrorist threat whether you are in the streets of Baghdad, Erbil or London. We have a collective interest of defeating it.
So you must have seen security measures being strengthened here too?
I was with Erbil governor Nawzad Hadi, who’s a good friend, remembering the attack on Ainkawa in April 2014. It’s to the credit of the security authorities across the Kurdistan Region that they have been largely successful in counterterrorism operations.
What are the main changes you saw during your time here?
The low oil prices revealed some structural shortcomings of Kurdistan’s economy: the large public sector, the relative weak private sector and the dominance of oil. The KRG is having to take difficult reforms. A new model is required for this new period. Just as it is in Britain’s interest that the Iraqi forces and the Peshmerga are successful against Daesh, so it’s in our interests that they deal with these challenges, make bold reforms so the economy recovers. Just as the security here matters for the security of the UK, so does the prosperity matter to its economic wellbeing.
Have you been involved in advising the Kurds on this?
British government ministers and diplomats have been encouraging the decision makers to make the necessary reforms, and explored various ways of capacity building. And in Erbil there are many quality British companies, that can be part of the recovery as they know what will help improve the business environment.
The KRG is having to take difficult reforms. A new model is required for this new period.
Have you seen British companies pull out because of the crisis?
I am aware that some pulled out and some are doing less than before. But many companies are adapting to the circumstances, and still there are sectors where investment is required. This economy will recover, as there is a progressive investment law and they are open for foreign businesses.
How do you look at the role Britain has played here?
Britain has an historic role. In 1991, when this place was threatened, Britain was one of the first to step in, providing military deterrents and humanitarian assistance. That relationship has strengthened ever since. Our support now is about the future of the region. The British Council is working in the education sector, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy works on institution building with the parliament and the integrity commission. And equally important are people to people ties, whether with parliamentarians or academics or simply friends. Part of the strength of the relationship, and the pleasure of my job as consul general is the diversity of ties between Kurdistan and Britain.
How do you see the future relationship with Kurdistan in respect to the fight against ISIS?
What will be important is not just winning the war but winning the peace. In regained territory there must be effective clearance of explosive devises, and services should be restored. And it is important that there is a political consensus between Iraqi political forces as Daesh is pushed back, so that any progress is sustainable. Britain is part of efforts to look at what is needed, there is our military training, and money for the humanitarian effort and contingency planning. And we work on stabilizing areas after Daesh.
Even with the threat of Daesh KRG needs to continue to invest in education.
Is the UK involved in the discussion of how to stabilize Mosul after it is recovered?
What is of primary importance is that Iraqi political forces do it. In recent weeks we have seen indications that there is an increasing dialogue between Baghdad and KRG in these issues. That is very welcome and necessary.
Kurdish students have gone to study in Britain on scholarships, but some are stranded - either because of the difference in levels, or because of financial problems due to the crisis. How is Britain helping here?
Some of the British universities are trying to make the situation less difficult and the Kurdish ministry of Higher Education is looking into it. Even with the threat of Daesh KRG needs to continue to invest in education. It’s great that kids have an education that is not overshadowed by dictatorship, and not interrupted by conflict. The British Council is working with the ministries, schools and universities to invest in education. Through the Chevening Scholarship we yearly offer the leaders of the future an opportunity for a master’s study in the UK. In a time of austerity, it is important that the investment in education continues.
What did this time here mean for you personally?
It’s been a real pleasure discovering and learning about Kurdistan’s politics, history, landscapes and its people. I made many personal friends. And I came to see the effect over time of decisions taken by governments, like mine in 1991. Sometimes change and progress need to be measured in decades rather than years. There is a lot to admire in what has been established by the leaders and the people, political forces and civil society in a quarter century, both in institutional development, stability and economic growth. I am confident we’ll see more of that in the longer term.
I am sure I will remain close to this place, and that the UK commitment will remain strong.
What is the biggest problem you were confronted with in the past two years?
It is disappointing that over the last year there have been differences between the different parties and the consensus between them has been broken. But it is positive that they are still committed to working out their differences.
Do you leave with new knowledge or insights?
I think that what is distressing about Iraq and Syria are the terrible atrocities committed by some of the actors, particularly Daesh and the Syrian regime - the sense of impunity some of them have, the price civilians pay in this conflict. It underlines the necessity of defeating Daesh, of rebuilding political consensus and making sure international humanitarian law is not ignored nor the needs of the most vulnerable. There will be a need for justice and community reconciliation.
Where do you go from here?
Angus McKee: After the two exhilarating years here I will be back in London. I know I will remain friends with many individuals and Kurdistan as a whole. I enjoyed the two years immensely; not only because of the personal experience but also because this place matters to the UK. I am sure I will remain close to this place, and that the UK commitment will remain strong.