November 29, 2016

Washington conference puts spotlight on business opportunities in Kurdistan

Washington, DC, USA ( – More than 100 members of American and Kurdistani business communities, US Government officials, economic experts, and representatives of financial institutions convened for the ‘Business Opportunities in Iraqi Kurdistan’ conference on November 29 at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins SAIS.

Speakers included Kurdistan Regional Government Minister of Planning Dr Ali Sindi, Minister of Agriculture and Water Resources Abdulstar Majeed, Deputy Minister of Electricity Hogar Shalli, Head of the Board of Supreme Audit Khalid Chawishli, and KRG Representative to the United States Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman.

The event was hosted by Dr Sasha Toperich, Senior Fellow and Director of the Mediterranean Basin initiative at The Center for Transatlantic Relations, SAIS. The new Iraqi Ambassador to the United States Fareed Yasseen also delivered opening remarks.

Additionally, US Deputy Assistant Secretary for Iraq Joseph Pennington and Assistant US Trade Representative Michael Delaney spoke on panels at the event. Representative Abdul Rahman said, ‘Why host a business conference today? Despite the challenges we face today, Kurdistan is still a good bet for investors.’ She said that the KRG had embarked on economic reforms that would bolster the role of the private sector in reviving the economy.

In his remarks as the keynote speaker, Minister Sindi said, ‘Over the last 13 years, Kurdistan has proved it is the best hub for investment, with great opportunities in diverse sectors.’ He added that because of the financial crisis caused by the fall in oil prices and Baghdad’s refusal to disburse KRG’s share of the federal budget, the ongoing war with ISIS, and the humanitarian crisis, ‘many infrastructure projects for basic services have halted. We need foreign investment to restart and continue to progress’.

US Deputy Assistant Secretary Pennington said, ‘We support and applaud the KRG’s comprehensive reform plans’. He added that, ‘Young people in Kurdistan have energy, ambition and ideas, and want to start businesses, even in this moment of crisis.’ US Assistant Trade Representative Delaney said, ‘US technical assistance to Kurdistan will help raise standards and practices in the country that are key to foreign direct investment.’

The conference covered a range of topics including economic reform, electricity, tourism, and agriculture. Among the participants was a delegation of from the Federation of Chambers of Commerce in the Kurdistan Region. Representatives from the World Bank, which has drafted Kurdistan Region’s roadmap to economic reform, also spoke, including senior economist Sibel Kulaksiz.

Kurdistan was once the breadbasket of Iraq and a net exporter of wheat, barley, and other crops. As part of the genocide against the Kurdish people, Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime conducted a campaign to destroy agricultural lands, assets and infrastructures. The effect was as intended, and the back of Kurdistan’s agricultural production was broken.

Since 2003, the KRG has sought to reverse this trend. Agriculture Minister Majid said, ‘To restore agriculture, we have drafted and implemented policies, and have achieved self-sufficiency in some crops.’

However, the full value-chain of agriculture has not been restored and represents a significant opportunity for American investors. He said, ‘We are in need to new techniques and technologies. Our doors are wide open for investment in production and agri-processing.’

With the rapid increase in the standard of living in Kurdistan over the past decade, coupled with a 30% increase in population as a result of the humanitarian crisis, Kurdistan’s electricity demand has increased sharply.

Deputy Minister Shalli said that although current power generation is theoretically sufficient, ‘the KRG lacks the infrastructure to transmit’. He said there are opportunities for companies in the distribution and transmission of electricity. He also highlighted the need to control electricity demand, mentioning that his ministry was in the process of implementing ‘smart meters’ on properties throughout Kurdistan.

As the KRG follows through on reforms, the Board of Supreme Audit functions as an independent body reporting to Parliament that monitors and makes recommendations about the use of public resources and funds. The Board’s Head Mr Chawishli said, ‘The rights of the population should be protected from corruption. Public rights should be protected during the process of privatization.’

Author of the Kurdistan Tour Guide, Dr Douglas Layton joined Representative Abdul Rahman to discuss opportunities in the tourism sector in Kurdistan. Dr Layton highlighted the rich history of the region and its potential to attract foreign visitors. He said, ‘Kurdistan has over 3,000 archaeological and biblical sites, more than anywhere else in the world. There are also more than 5,000 unexplored caves.’ He added, ‘The Kurds are one of the few genuine friends that the United States has in the Middle East.’

Representative Abdul Rahman said, ‘Adventure and heritage tourism are areas of growth. The KRG is aiming to attract 7 million tourists per year by 2025.’

Following the conference, the KRG Representation hosted a reception with the US-Kurdistan Business Council in honor of the KRG officials who attended the conference.

See photos of the event here.
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