Together, For A Stronger Economy

KBBC Forum 2022 aimed to provide a platform for dialogue between business owners, academics, experts, and government officials from Kurdistan Region, Iraq, and the UK. We hope to find ways to increase trade and business relations between companies and business institutions.

The panel discussions focused on the obstacles and barriers facing the businesses locally and internationally and how to overcome them. Sector-specific, the cabinet members debated with experts about their visions and strategies and how to assist businesses achieve their goals.


Panelists include a variety of cabinet members, decision-makers, academics, diplomats, and journalists. 

پانێڵستەکان بریتین لە چەندین ئەندامی کابینەی حکومەت، بڕیاربەدەستان، ئەکادیمیستەکان، دیپلۆماتکاران، و ڕۆژنامەنووسان

Summary Reports and Panel Videos

Opening Remarks of KBBC Forum 2022

Banking Relations and the Missing Links

This panel discussed finance, the many issues surrounding the banking sector, and steps taking place to resolve these issues.

The people of Iraq are highly reliant on public banks. Their importance lies in that they are “like an engine” that enables the private sector to grow, as the private sector cannot prosper without direct ties to a bank. The issue lies in people dealing solely in cash, and storing assets and wealth in the form of physical objects, land, gold, etc. This adds to the problem of banks being unable to perform their functions and being forced to maintain high levels of liquidity. This makes it more difficult for banks to provide loans and fulfill their functions in the financial system. This drives private banks, which are significantly smaller than public banks, to claim high interest rates and only lend to projects that provide rapid return.

“The fact that banks are the engine of the economy is indisputable. Without banks there cannot be development, there cannot be work, and it would not be possible for a person to establish a project, or to trade, or to import.” Said Ehsan Shamran, Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Iraq. He believes that despite the great efforts made, the issues of hoarding, carrying cash, and cardholders being unable to make purchases are still apparent.

Digital banking has grown to become part of daily life, according to Wadeea Al Handal, President of the Iraqi Private Banks League. Keeping up with the advancements is a necessity. The people must be encouraged to utilize banks as a form of money management. A common misconception is that utilizing banks (having a bank account) is only for the wealthy. The ISIS war, along with the drop in oil prices had a big impact on banks in the Kurdistan Region, and people began to lose trust. However, with great efforts from the Regional Government, the issue has since been resolved, and a state of better connections has been established. A bank account may now be opened within a span of 5 minutes.

As stated by Kadhim Namiq, General Director of Central Bank of Iraq/Erbil Branch, savings accounts and deposits in banks amounted to more than one trillion and five hundred billion dinars, and commercial loans that were granted by commercial banks amounted to one trillion dinars. As for the specialized banks, granting the Kurdistan region real estate, agricultural, and industrial loans amounted to four trillion and two hundred billion dinars. The total loans granted to citizens and employees amounted to about three trillion and three hundred billion dinars, and those loans were interest-free. The greatest obstacles facing the banks in the Kurdistan Region are the inability of banks to manage their financial affairs due to a lack of capital, a lack of Board of Directors, and an excessive number of employees, “About seven thousand employees in the specialized banks.”

Ehsan Shamran believes another problem to be accusations aimed at the Central Bank coming from politicians and people alike. Al Handal believes these claims are without merit. “Politicians talk about money laundering, and they don’t understand what money laundering is. There is honesty. Trust in God.” Claims of money laundering and corruption deter foreign investment. “Britain has been a partner for more than a hundred years.” Said Shamran. “Our relationship with British products, with British culture, with British education, is deeply rooted.” Shamran believes the only way to establish these foreign connections and the only way the ‘Iraqi passion’ can come to life is through government action.

When asked about possible solutions to combat money laundering in Iraq, Al Handal believed the answer to be raising awareness via schools and universities. He hoped that more educational institutions will join in the effort to raise awareness.

As for dealing with corruption, Shamran remarked that “placing an honest employee in a corrupt environment will corrupt the employee as well.” As a result, transitory internal control measures must be implemented.

Modernising the Education Sector, How to Prepare for the Future?

This panel discussed strategies that the KRG should be undertaking in order to modernise the education sector and attract international institutions in order to create partnerships between international universities and their counterparts in Kurdistan.

Sirwan Baban, a chief scientific advisor to the president of the KRI, acknowledged that the purpose and mission of universities are to “energise and lead the social and economic development and the well-being of society, and as society evolves and as technology advances, universities also need to keep up.” Considering impact factors and international ranking, Kurdish universities still have a significant amount of work left for improvement. In responding to a question posed by the moderator on the exact mechanics and procedures needed for universities in Kurdistan to compete globally, and to attract foreign investment to the Region, Victoria Lindsey, argued for the consideration of what attracts foregin investment, including in the education sector, in the Kurdistan Region. She, having been the country manager of British Council of Iraq, quireid “If they [British universities] are offered a partnership, for example, in Saudi Arabia, and they’re offered a partnership in Kurdistan, what is the attractiveness of working with a Kurdish university as opposed to working with a Saudi university?” 

UK investors are still doubtful of Kurdistan and Iraq’s security and stability, and aren’t willing to invest in unstable countries. Secondly, universities in the UK will partner with organisations that are of equal or commensurate ranking with them, or provide an area of interest useful for the UK universities’ interests.  Kurdistan must bring their own unique research to the table, such as research on water management, dust storms, climate change, etc. This would create opportunities for collaboration that could turn into partnerships down the line; Kurdistan will provide knowledge on something they know about, and the UK will bring international research standards. This suggests that Kurdish universities must be diligent in creating niche opportunities for themselves. An example of this is the Imperial College London, a high ranking university that specialises in science and engineering, and will only partner with organisations of equal standing to them or that they share a similar interest with. “If you partnered with Imperial on a paper about water resource management, it is going to be in internationally ranked journals. Internationally ranked journals count towards the international rankings and so the universities rise together.” Further, Kurdish Universities must also manage their expectations and start with forming smaller partnerships that have the potential to grow into something bigger in the future, rather than expecting larger partnerships that may not be achievable at the moment.

Lindsey went further to explain the Delphi Project of 2013, one of the most successful partnership programs that the UK has administered in Kurdistan. It was a small project with regards money, but had a large influence on creating strong partnerships. Their goal was focused around curriculum development, skills, employability, and research. Lindsey suggested that the KRG should look into relaunching the project, and reiterated that starting with achievable partnerships would allow Kurdish institutions to build a relationship that then becomes a bigger project.

The panel proceeded with a discussion on accreditation, a substantial challenge for universities in Kurdistan. So far, no Kurdish university, private or public, has been accredited by any international body. To tackle this,  the Prime Minister created the Accreditation Council, which obliges universities to set international standards and abide by them. According to Karzan Khwarahm, senior advisor to the Prime Minister, this is only one step in the sea of issues that universities have yet to overcome. Another pressing issue is the process of admission. Students are admitted to universities based on their final undergraduate year grade score. Interest, passion, and will play a little, if any, of a role in the admission process. Underscoring this challenge, one of the panellists rightly stated “[f]rom the first day we are putting the students at their university based on their grade, not based on their will, not based on their interest. So what is your expectation from someone you put in some department that he doesn’t want to, or belong to? […] for the rest of his life [the student] will be in the same pathway which he hated from the first day he entered. So we need to change that.” 

The system of learning is rather outdated in Kurdistan, where focus is put on memorisation and information retrieval, instead of learning, initiating, thinking critically. The discussants further explained that this problem must be solved at the root, in the early developmental stage of the student. At a young age, individuals must be made aware of globalisation, be taught to lead, and have parents collaborate with schools and become part of the solution. The solution doesn’t only lie with the Ministry of Higher Education and universities in the KRI, but it starts with the Ministry of Education. The very philosophical foundation of education in this region is outdated. The world is moving into an era of technological advancement, but the materials being taught in schools are inappropriate for this generation of students. Sirwan Baban explicated further by  stating that in order to make the curriculum more relevant and produce students for the job market, we must teach graduates to become critical thinkers, to evaluate, and to be interactive:”[y]ou need to move away from memorization. It should be banned to say ‘list this, talk about this.’ We should move into standards that say compare, evaluate, critically evaluate.”

Kurdish universities are also lacking in quality research. Research and research training are a fundamental part of universities, however, the research made must be relevant to the factors that impact this region and must also correspond to an international standard. This would eliminate the disengagement between the university, society, and government. In order to accomplish this, university staff in Kurdistan must be trained on how to conduct quality research, to know the difference between research consultancy and innovation, as well as be able to link the research to a problem area that the government can benefit from. “I’d love to see an agenda from the government that tells us all the priority areas, for example, the Ministry of Planning and the other ministries. Then the universities will start developing graduates to fill those gaps. […] We need to look for the research priority areas for the region. We need to look for partnerships with UK universities so we could develop our staff, and also deliver the outputs that hopefully become part of the decision making process for the government that improves everybody’s life” said Sirwan Baban. He further claimed that the solution to this problem lies in Kurdistan, when people from Kurdistan move abroad, they succeed in that environment: “the fault is not in the raw material, not in the people. The fault is in the system. We have to revise the system and we have to be brave to tackle it.” Thus, decision makers must start a reform agenda. They need to incentivise university staff to conduct their own consultancies, research, and attend conferences in order to be able to produce quality research and make it into international refereed journals. Karzan Khwarahm pressed on the need to cultivate research culture in the universities and the recently allocated fund of one billion Iraqi Dinars should incentivise research that is needed in the Kurdistan Region. It is essential to conduct research that reflects the needs of the region.

There appears to be a clear mismatch between what graduates can offer and the employers’ needs, according to Victoria Lindsey.While people believe that there is a paucity of jobs in Kurdistan, the fact is that there are jobs, but fresh graduates don’t have the skills required in order to apply for those jobs. Foreign companies look overseas to hire individuals instead of finding what they need in Kurdistan, given shortages in skills. So how do we get the Kurdish people into those jobs and prevent people from coming overseas to take the jobs? According to Lindsey, the answer is here in Kurdistan. It’s about being dedicated to the strategy that might improve the curriculum and in turn create graduates with transferable skills. Karzan Khwarahm added that university lecturers should also have experience from the industry, rather than having a primarily theoretical background. Lecturers should stay up to date with standards and science in order to maintain their connectedness to the industrial world. This would reduce the barrier between academia and industry, it would prepare the graduates for the job market.

The Kurdistan Region needs a solid plan. This was a statement that the participants shared in common. It is essential to  know what type of graduates the region needs, what type of research is required and what needs the market has. This plan, more importantly, needs to be “reviewed every now and then.” Sirwan Baban. 

Is Kurdistan Ready for UK Investment?

This panel discussed business and investment opportunities in the KRI for foreign investment and presented ways in which the KRG can assist in the development of trade and relations between the KRI, British government, British private sector, and other relevant stakeholders. Further discussions were made on strategies that would mitigate obstacles and barriers to trade in order to facilitate the creation of a favourable environment for investors and entrepreneurs in the KRI.

One way in which the KRI has seen improvement according to Kamal Muslim, the KRG Minister of Industry and Trade, is through diversifying their source of income and therefore no longer being solely dependent on the oil sector. To do this, the KRG has been aiming to improve other sectors such as the commercial, industrial, tourism, and agriculture, with the hope of diversifying  sources of income.

Muslim also detailed numerous barriers to foreign trade and investment that the KRG is facing. He started with Kurdistan’s challenge of sovereignty, and emphasised that as a result, Kurdistan inevitably inherits Iraq’s problems despite being an autonomous region. The problems shared between Iraq and Kurdistan are varied including a lack of stability and security, outdated laws inhibiting the creation of a free market system, Iraq not being a member in the World Trade Organization, the absence of  a rigorous and trusted  banking system, and a difficulty in adapting national laws that could fit the conditions in Kurdistan. He added, “[People abroad] should know that the Kurdistan Region is different from the other parts of Iraq in terms of security and safety. […] The consulate, companies, and businessmen abroad should illustrate to their businessmen and citizens that the Kurdistan Region is a separate region, they can come and invest.” 

Muslim elaborated on three relevant improvements carried out by the KRG that will ease business. The first improvement is the technological advancement of allowing business owners to register their companies electronically. While it previously would have taken fifteen to thirty days, companies can now be registered in three to four business days. Another improvement is the ‘one window’ system, where a business owner is able to resolve administrative matters in one place rather than endure the extensive administrative process.

Universities in Kurdistan do not seem to need to cater for the needs of the market nor the skills the government requires. The sheer size of the graduates each year exceeds the private and the public absorption capacity. Another challenge for the domestic economy is a clear lack of transportation infrastructure, without which industry, trade, agriculture and tourism would nor easily flourish. Deficiencies in the supply of electricity pose another serious challenge to production factories, despite improvement in electricity production and a policy of privatising it. 

Mohammed Shukri, director of the board of investment in the KRG, highlighted opportunities and privileges that foreign businesses can attain within the KRI. He stated that the KRI has many industrial opportunities, from oil and gas to petrochemicals that can be developed further through the help of the financial and industrial capabilities of larger countries such as the UK. The UK can play a key role in creating industrial zones for the KRG. “Today, 37% of investment projects are industrial.”, he added. Aside from that, there are also numerous opportunities within the agricultural and tourism sectors that could be utilised. Lastly, Kurdistan also has built favourable ties with British institutions in the education sector, and there appears to be an encouraging ground for more in this sector, like opening British universities in the region, according to Shukri.

Shukri agreed to the reality that the KRI lacks the required infrastructure needed to make use of its potentials in agriculture and industry. The UK could assist the KRG in developing the infrastructure especially in the fields of transportation, agriculture and water management. Kurdistan can also benefit from British companies’ established capacity in the sectors of finance and banking and the production of green energy. “We in the KRG have been working on projects called green economy or green investment […] we have developed a guide on green investment, with hundreds of opportunities for clean industry, subsistence farming, tree planting campaigns around big cities, and tourism projects with an environmentally friendly system.” 

Shukri briefly shed light on British investment projects in the KRI, stating that Kurdistan has only had three British investment projects in the past, “out of the 1143 licences that have been issued by the KRG for businesses, only three of them have been British. This is a really small number.” The total capital of the three projects amounts to $121 million, a low quantity compared to the total $66 billion invested in Kurdistan today.

Dara Khaylani, the panel moderator, was of the view that in the Kurdistan Region, most investors are after expeditious profits. Building a man-made forest may become a huge tourism project in the future that will last for hundreds of years. But the perspective of investors, especially foreign investors, who come to the KRI is to make a quick profit.”

Yassin Rashid, head of the Contractor’s Union in  Sulaimani, expressed his concern about not paying sufficient attention to creating insurance in the region. This inattention has meted out a grave blow to the government in  Kurdistan. 

David Hunt, the UK Consul General to the KRI, commended the efforts of the KRG to improve investment laws, but strongly emphasised that work remains to be done in order to make the investment market in the region as attractive as it could be for foreign investors and businesses to prosper. The UK aims to increase worldwide exports from its current £650 billion to £1 trillion by 2035. Considering the incredibly low number of exports they have with Iraq against the many investment opportunities that can be found in the region, there is a significant potential for UK businesses to invest in the country. However, for British businesses to be willing to invest in the KRI, “they [British investors] have to look at the marketplace here and see an attractive one where they can be confident that they can set up, have access to legal recourse if there is an issue or a concern, know that their suppliers and also their partners in business here can be consistent in the way that they work with them.”, Mr. Hunt explained. He added that he has witnessed British businesses, such as car companies, pharmaceutical companies, nutritional brands, and more, do well in the KRI. As for bringing UK universities to the KRI, he stated, “I do hope within a number of months to be in a position where we can talk much more about UK higher education institutions coming to this marketplace to make the most of what is your greatest asset, which is your human capital.” 

The absolute key to the future success of the Kurdistan region, according to the consul general, is through the growth of the banking and financial services sector. Support mechanisms that would help increase trade between the KRI and the UK, and trade organisations that help set Kurdish organisations up with British organisations do already exist. Government to government initiatives also exist, thus ultimately, bringing British businesses to the Kurdistan region boils down to creating the right business environment. “If they [the KRI] can provide the right offer, the right regulatory environment, the right business environment, an environment that is stable, then businesses will come.” Hunt stated that he sees a clear business opportunity in this region, and urged the KRG and businesses in the KRI to continue in the direction of reform, adding, “the Kurdistan Regional Government that I speak to understands that and is making efforts to move in that direction quite significantly. […] There’s still much more to do, and so we want to work together with you on that.” Hunt agreed that Kurdistan would benefit greatly from exporting its own agricultural produce, but claimed that it’s the responsibility of the KRG’s high representative in the UK and their trade office in London to open that trade route. However, this is a responsibility the UK consulate in the KRI would support through working with the KRG’s high representative.

UK Consul General to KRI, David Hunt’s Speech at KBBC Forum 2022