The U.S. Chamber of Commerce was honored last week to host Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, a D.C. newcomer and the new representative to the Kurdistan Regional Government, for a discussion on economic opportunities in the region -- even in the face of ongoing turmoil.
While ISIS and other threats have received most of the headlines, Rahman told the story of an area eager for continued growth, economic diversity and cooperation with global partners in a wide variety of fields.
Along with her years of journalism experience and her time as the Kurdistan Region Government (KRG) representative to England, Bayan brings to the job a close understanding of the difficulties her region and people have endured. After spending a good portion of her childhood avoiding the long reach of Saddam Hussein’s regime, only to lose her father and brother to a terrorist attack in 2004, Bayan is understandably very passionate about the future of the Kurdistan region and the need for her diverse homeland to remain strong, united and optimistic in the face of threats.
During her meeting with members of the Chamber, Bayan described in detail the pluralistic and diverse nature of her homeland, and the “golden period” enjoyed from 2003 to 2013 when growth, security and prosperity were all on the rise. Boasting a robust representational government (at least 30% of parliament seats must be occupied by women, and at least 11 seats are dedicated to minority groups), Bayan noted that the fate of the Kurdistan region is still closely tied to that of the Iraq, as well as to their neighbors, which all share similar security concerns with similar intertwined fates.
While the Islamic state continues to be an active threat to many nations in the region, KRG has had to deal with ongoing financial negotiations with Iraq over its allotted budget and the release of allocated funds in exchange for oil production. On a positive note, negotiations have broken down barriers and allowed needed financial resources to be directed to the Kurdistan region. Further, the refugee crisis remains an ongoing challenge: Close to 1.6 million refugees have crossed the border into the region, representing a 28% increase in population. The effort to provide food and shelter for these refugees, while maintaining security, has been no easy task – and requires almost $1.5 billion for infrastructure support going forward.
Fully acknowledging that oil and energy production remain a strong component of the region’s economic growth, Bayan also was clear about the other areas of economic opportunity and growth present in the region. Recent regional laws continue efforts to create a transparent and fair playing field for domestic and foreign investment alike, all with the intention of creating fertile ground for robust joint ventures that transcend the region’s nascent energy production.
Aware that banking and finance ventures are still currently “underdeveloped,” Bayan spoke of their potential, especially when tied to the vast developing market of tourism in the area. Tourism continues to be a high priority for the KRG, especially as outlined in the “Vision of the Future 2020” publication. Indeed, the Kurdistan region was listed in 2015 as one of the “Top 10” adventure travel destinations by The Guardian.
Bayan stressed the importance for global partners to look “beyond what happened 2014,” and that the growth enjoyed by Kurdistan prior to the Islamic state uprising was one with a strong upward trend. She stated that “IS has been pushed out of 95% of the territories in our regions; and what remains are confined to the far outlying borders.” She reminded that the 650-mile border requires constant vigilance.
Bayan was quick to remind that close to $13.7 billion in investment capital will flow into the Kurdistan region from 2012 to 2016, all with the intention of building and increasing existing infrastructure, construction and economic opportunities. Growth will continue, and the region is well-ranked in terms of stability and growth per the 2014 Economist Intelligence rankings.
She pointed out that the region has a large, strong and “young” population, but Bayan stated that the area is still “living with a legacy” of large gaps of males of a certain age within families -- a stark reminder of the harsh days under Saddam Hussein’s rule. While fully acknowledging that the Kurdistan region must stand with Iraq and its neighbors, and that a federalist approach is best, Bayan asserted they “will not be controlled.”
Bayan considers the prospects for the future bright, especially considering efforts to create new laws allowing international borrowing, the dynamic and engaged leadership of the KRG, and the renewed strategic partnerships with the United States and Europe.