Interview Transcript: BBC's Maryam Moshiri and Kurdistan Region PM Barzani

Kurdistan Region Prime Minister Masrour Barzani (right) is pictured during his participation at a special conversation chaired by BBC's Maryham Moshiri, Nov. 21, 2023. (Photo: KRG)
Kurdistan Region Prime Minister Masrour Barzani (right) is pictured during his participation at a special conversation chaired by BBC's Maryham Moshiri, Nov. 21, 2023. (Photo: KRG)

ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) - The British Broadcasting Corporation's Chief Presenter Maryam Moshiri on Tuesday held an interview in length with Kurdistan Region Prime Minister Masrour Barzani at the MEPS23 Forum in Dohuk, where she asked Barzani about several significant issues relating to the Gaza conflict, the plight of minorities in Iraq, and women's rights, among other important topics.

Maryam Moshiri: Ladies and gentlemen, esteemed guests, welcome back from the lunch break. I hope you all enjoyed a delightful meal. And now, as we resume our discussions, I am beyond honored to introduce the third session of the day, a special conversation with the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Region, His Excellency Masrour Barzani, accompanied by the moderator Maryam Moshiri from the BBC. Thank you so much, everyone, for attending this very special panel. My name is Maryam Moshiri, and I'm a chief presenter at BBC News. It's my honour and privilege to be here today to interview His Excellency, the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Region, Prime Minister Barzani. Thank you so much for your time. This is an opportunity for me to ask the questions that I would like to know the answers to, but also for you in the audience to take part and to be involved. You can ask questions to Prime Minister Barzani by using the MEPs app. I will then look at your questions, and as much time as we have, I'll put as many questions as possible to the Prime Minister at the end of the session. It's the conflict in the Middle East. It's top of the news agenda right now globally. A lot of the Middle East are worried about this conflict. What is your opinion about what's happening now and the prospects potentially of it spreading to the Middle East?

PM Masrour Barzani: Well, thank you for this opportunity. Of course, we as a nation that has been through so many different wars, we know how devastating wars are. So let me please start by saying that we denounce war, and we think that it should not even be the last resort. It should not even be a way to solve any problems. I think to start answering your question, we have to ask another question. If we look at the situation in Gaza, are the people in Gaza better off today or were they better off before October 7? I think the answer is very clear. Innocent people are paying the ultimate price. We denounce war, we denounce attacking civilians, and we believe that there has to be a peaceful, amicable solution to every conflict here in the Middle East. It's very sad to see that decades-long conflicts were ignored until the day where it broke out, and there is a full-fledged war. So if we address problems when we have the time, as I said yesterday in my remarks, we need to solve problems before they escalate into military confrontations. Because once it starts, it's hard to predict when it can end and how it will end. Well, we know one thing for sure, that the victims are innocent civilians, and innocent lives should be spared wherever they may be. And we should, of course, I mean, we are worried about the expanding of this conflict into different parts of the Middle East. We are very tired of wars, and we hope that there will be an end to the war and peaceful solutions are going to be introduced to this conflict.

Maryam Moshiri: Do you see a role being played by Iraq in some sort of solution?

PM Masrour Barzani: I think the best thing Iraq can do is to stay away from this conflict. Iraqis have enough problems. If there is a way to provide humanitarian assistance, that's fine. And this is what we here in the KRG are doing. We are trying to, through our charities, try to find some humanitarian aid to send it to the people in need. But unfortunately, there hasn't been any opportunity yet. The authorities in charge haven't opened that gate or that chance for this humanitarian support that we intend to send. But I think for Iraq, if they can mediate a peaceful solution, that would be fine. If they can provide humanitarian aid, that would be even better. But I don't think that slogans are going to help the people in need of medicine, people in need of food, people in need of security. Words and slogans are not helpful. The best action would be to provide assistance to the people in need.

Maryam Moshiri: Thank you for your answers, Your Excellency.

PM Masrour Barzani: You're welcome.

Maryam Moshiri: Let's talk now about internal politics. I'm sure many people watching this have been talking about the latest twists and turns, in particular the Sunni speaker, Mr. Al-Halbusi, who was ousted by the federal court. It's caused a lot of tension in Baghdad. What do you think of that? And do you believe that more tension is yet to come?

PM Masrour Barzani: I think the timing was wrong. I'm not going to talk about the decision, but the timing definitely wasn't good for Iraq. Why? Well, we have so many different problems, as you know, what we talked about, the whole Middle East now facing this crisis. We have other issues to address. This was an unwanted crisis, an unwanted problem. I think it shouldn't have happened, and if there was any way to address this issue, it should have happened through different channels. The parliament itself should have been warned, and probably the parliament should have made a decision. But to have one institution above everything and to make unilateral decisions without looking at the consequences of what that may be on the overall situation in Iraq is not helpful. So I think this is again, I mean, it's an issue that takes us back to the fundamental principle of partnership in the country. And Iraq is made of different components. Sunnis are definitely one of the main components of this country. Their wishes need to be respected, and their representatives need to be respected, and if there is a change, it has to happen through the channels that are acceptable by the country and by that very component.

Maryam Moshiri: Let's talk about collaboration in this country and the problems with that, the tensions. Anyone watching this from afar would see the tensions between Erbil and Baghdad, particularly with regards to oil exports to Turkey. What's your assessment of these issues now?

PM Masrour Barzani: Again, this is an issue that dates back to many years ago. The conflict between Baghdad and Erbil over oil is because the Constitution was not interpreted or respected in the sense that it was written. Kurdistan has certain rights in the Constitution, which unfortunately have been ignored. Those rights are extraction and production and selling oil. Unfortunately, over the years, there has been conflicts between Baghdad and Erbil. And the main question is very clear. Are we a federal state, or is Baghdad a central government? I think that's the fundamental issue. We believe that there needs to be, in a federal state, there needs to be power sharing and distribution of power to the regions as it's stipulated in the constitution. Unfortunately, there is a mentality in Baghdad, and I'm not saying everyone, but there is a mentality that is dominant, that believes that everything has to be controlled by the central government, and that's the main difference. So if we break it down and come and look at the oil issue in particular, we see that Kurdistan has done everything that is required by the constitution. We have done all of our duties, but we've never enjoyed the rights that we also have in the constitution. Kurdistan has complied with the constitution and the regulations. We have worked with the federal government on the oil sales and on the principles of oil production. But unfortunately, we haven't been receiving the support that we deserve from the federal government and from the federal institutions. So to be more specific, we have contracts with international oil companies. These contracts are valid and legal. And of course, in the KRG, we respect these contracts. But there is a cost for production of oil by these IOCs, because they are the ones that have invested in Kurdistan. So it's not like in Baghdad where they haven't invested in producing oil, but the companies have invested. So they need to have the investment costs, and also the production costs, and also the profit, based on the contract that they have. And there is a price, there is a cost for the production of oil. Unfortunately, Baghdad is talking about a number that is not real. They're introducing $6 for the cost of production for each barrel in Kurdistan. There are similar wells in Kurdistan, for instance, in Geara, that the cost of production for the oil in that well is $34. So how come in another well in Kurdistan, the cost should be $6? So there is a huge difference. And when we confront Baghdad, they say, well, this is an average, because we also have other wells in other parts of the country that is about $1 or $2. True. But my question is, when Baghdad is paying the cost of these wells, are they paying every well or every company $6? Or they're paying each well its own price. Unfortunately, they haven't even counted the cost of production in Kurdistan to come up with a different figure. And in that case, it's important, and this is the discussions that we've had with Baghdad, that together through the KRG, because KRG is the owner of the contracts, it’s the side that has signed the contracts with the IOCs. And this is the right that the KRG has, and we are not going to give that right up. So we are talking to the government in Baghdad that with us, we can talk to the IOCs to see what would be the actual cost of production. Once this is done, then the export can be done easily because without production, we cannot have export. That's why I'm focusing on the production, that once we have enough production, then we can move into the next stage of exporting oil through Turkey.

Maryam Moshiri: Everyone can see this is causing economic strife. Do you foresee exports restarting before the new year, given what you've just said to me?

PM Masrour Barzani: We are ready. As I said, here in the KRG, MNR, Ministry of Natural Resources, is ready as of today. Now the ball is in Baghdad's court. Are they willing to give the actual cost of production to the IOCs that are operating in Kurdistan? If they are, we can definitely produce and they can produce. We are here regulators as the KRG and we are defending our constitutional rights but we are also defending the rights of our partners that have trusted us and invested in Kurdistan. So once these contracts are respected and once the federal government pays these IOCs then there is oil to be exported. How likely is that going to happen? We are talking in fact we had delegation visiting us from Baghdad last week and it was a very good meeting that they had with the Ministry of Oil. I've had several conversations with the prime minister himself, and he's also very understanding. The ministry is very understanding. So I'm hoping that they would come to some sort of agreement, and we can produce and also export. I cannot tell you when.

Maryam Moshiri: Thank you for answering it. There have been significant challenges, have there not, caused by the halt in the export of oil, also budget cuts. And how has the Kurdistan region been transforming itself from a single commodity economy to something much more diverse? How have you been doing that and why does it matter?

PM Masrour Barzani: It does matter because we think that Kurdistan is blessed with fertile land. We have many other areas that we can develop and diversify our economy and increase our sources of revenue. And at the beginning of this cabinet, I tried to do just that. Yes, we have oil, and we can export oil. We can still benefit from it. But I think the revenues that we generate from one sector can also be reinvested in other sectors and then increase our chances of revenues in different sectors. So I heavily invested in agriculture, also in industry, in tourism. And I'm also looking at how we can improve our education and health system. It paid off from the very beginning of this cabinet because we were hit with the COVID and then the crushing oil prices and then of course the cut of our budget from Baghdad, but we managed to survive because we did a few things. One, we had a much better relationship with the private sector. And I gave much more room to the private, a lot more room to the private sector to collaborate and work with the government to run the economy and don't let it fall. And at the same time, we looked at cutting the government's expenditure, doing this reform. And it takes time until you see the results of some of these actions that we have started at the beginning of this cabinet. But today, we are seeing many of these benefits. For instance, the export of our agricultural goods to the Gulf and to Europe. We can see that this is encouraging many farmers to go back into farming. We see there is an increase in the agri-products and the revenues generated from it. So we are doing everything we possibly can to diversify our economy. I can say, you know, this is a part of our reform. And I would like to call this a revolution in transforming Kurdistan into a different stage because it's not just about diversification of the economy, but it's also about digitizing our systems and services that we have started at the beginning of this cabinet.

Maryam Moshiri: Tell me more about that, particularly in banking, because the Kurdistan region has been very much at the forefront of digitalization, hasn't it?

PM Masrour Barzani: Yes. Well, unfortunately, not only in Kurdistan, but in all of Iraq, the economy is based on cash. And cash-based economies have limits on how much they can grow. Unfortunately, the banking system in Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq wasn't very active and wasn't very, let's say, standard. So what we're trying to do here in Kurdistan to first build the infrastructure that is needed for the citizens. Because in my cabinet, citizens are the center of attention for my government. So we'd like to provide whatever services we can to make sure that the citizens are benefiting the most. And for that, we need to have these banking services available for the citizens. What that means is that the banks need to, the government to support and to regulate, needs to, the government to support and to regulate and to protect the rights, but also to the citizens also require the government to protect that they will not be taken advantage by the banks. But whenever you have this digital banking system, you automatically know that there is going to be more growth. And also, we are asking the banks to give loans to citizens so citizens can buy homes, can buy cars with affordable payments. The banks happy to do that? They'd be happy to do that? Yes, but we are now starting, there is a project that we've started called My Account. My Account means that by the end of 2024, I'm hoping that more than one million government employees will be enrolled in this program. And by the way, and I just want to tell people of Duhok and Sulaymaniyah that this month, this project will also happen. It will start here in Duhok and in Sulaymaniyah. So we are going to get every government employee on this program but I'm also going to have the private sector be enrolled and we are working with other banks and the good news is that every bank that is involved in this program, very soon, they are going to be the biggest banks in the country. They are going to benefit hugely. So this is a win-win situation. Banks are going to benefit from it. Citizens are going to benefit from it. And then we will have this infrastructure. We are now installing about 1,000 ATMs throughout Kurdistan. And we are also installing about 40,000 payment stations so that not only the citizens here of Kurdistan but also visitors coming from outside, they can benefit and use credit cards rather than carrying cash with them. So this is hugely going to transform our economy into a different stage, and I'm very optimistic about it.

Maryam Moshiri: Let's talk about corruption because that is something that we need to address, particularly in terms of Iraq and, indeed, the Kurdistan region. Corruption, some people say, has stopped this region and, indeed, the whole country, from progressing in the way that it should have. What are you doing to combat corruption?

PM Masrour Barzani: Well, this is a good question. I've answered this several times before, but I think my way of fighting corruption is to stop corruption. You need to have a system where people cannot, corrupt people cannot take advantage of the system. Once you have a system that is controlled, once you have a system that is transparent, once you have a system that is functioning well, and this is exactly what we're doing with this digitalization of the government services and payments and everything, because everything will be very transparent, then it would be very difficult for people to, you know, conduct, let's say, corruption. However, there are also individuals that need to be held accountable for their bad deeds, but that alone doesn't help if the cycle of corruption continues to enroll. So you need to stop it at some point, and then you have enough time to go back and look at who has done what, and then you can hold them accountable for their bad behavior. What's the time frame we're looking at here? Actually, we have started. We have started. So, you know, and the corruption, you know, in my view, is not just about people cheating and taking money, but it's also about waste of time. The employees, government employees, who are paid to serve people, but they are going and sitting there not doing anything. This is also corruption. So we have started this from the beginning of this cabinet but it's not a process that you can have results, you know, the next day. So it takes some time but I think we are on the right track.

Maryam Moshiri: Let's turn our attention to something that I know is very close to your heart and that is the issue of climate change. In particular, climate change and how it impacts the people in this region and this country, particularly in terms of water scarcity. How worried are you about the impact?

PM Masrour Barzani: We are worried. It's not just about water scarcity. There are many things. Of course, water is the main factor. And I think the panel this morning talked about how the rivers are diverted, or dams are built. So there is the inflow of water into Iraq is much less than it used to be. And also, the rains. And thank God that we had a good amount of rain the last two days. But this is something that we have to pray for rain all the time. But what we have done is to build medium, small size. And also, we have plans to build more bigger dams so that we can hold water and have better usage of water that we can get in different seasons. So better management of water resources. It's one of our plans that we are actually doing. Afforestation, I heard this morning also talking about it, so it's another plan that we have. Capturing gas, associated gas from the oil wells that, actually we, in Kurdistan, have already done that. So we have captured gas and turned it into electricity in some part, and we have a decree from the MNR that all of IOCs must also look at the opportunities of whether to reinject the gas into the fields or turn it into energy in other areas. So we are doing what we can. But also, this is not just our job. This is a collective responsibility by the international community. We already are seeing migration of people from one city to another in Iraq, which is heavily affected by it. But this migration could also happen from country to country, and mainly from this region to Europe, or to the West, or developed countries. I can look at it from a different perspective. If this migration is unacceptable, there is a choice that can be made today. Of course, there are financial responsibilities that everybody has to accept to look at how to address the problem at its origin. If not, when the migration happens, masses of people migrate to different countries. They take with them social, political, economic, and security problems to the host countries. So instead of looking at a problem where it can be solved just by financial support, then they have to pay more finances, they have to also address the security and political and economic issues in their own countries when they see these people migrate to their country. Is this the message you'll be taking with you to COP28 when you go there at the end of the month?

PM Masrour Barzani: Absolutely, yes. This is a fact. And let me tell you one thing. These are not speculations. These are not predictions. We are living the situation. We are seeing it's happening today. And it's very serious. And I hope that the world looks at this with great interest and works collectively to find solutions for this problem.

Maryam Moshiri: Your Excellency, you clearly feel passionately about this, but what about the rest of Iraq? Do you think that climate change is taken as seriously as it should be by the people within the country?

PM Masrour Barzani: I think the rest of Iraq is affected even more. We in Kurdistan have our own resources. But do people take it seriously? Unfortunately, not to the extent that they want to, no. But they should.

Maryam Moshiri: Let's talk a little bit about policy. In particular, I've seen a lot of young people in your own staff. Kurdistan is a young region. Iraq is an up-and-coming young country. What are you doing to empower the youth of this country, particularly in terms of employment, because there is a proportion of the youth in this country who are unemployed. What are you doing to combat that?

PM Masrour Barzani: Well, the youth are the future of this country. And I'm a firm believer that we need to empower the youth and the young talents. And in my office, I now have a staff of about 60-70 very talented young people from different regions that they're working in my office. And this circle is growing. And these will be the drivers behind the engine of reform and transformation in Kurdistan. So I'm really investing in them, and I know that very soon it will pay off. We are empowering the young talents. There are several programs that have started. For instance, I have announced the establishment of something called Kurdistan Innovation Institute, which basically helps talents and brains and ideas and turn that into actions and business plans. So that's one thing. We have recently announced the Bloom, which is another project that would allow entrepreneurs to get loans from the banks to expand their businesses or to start their own businesses. So I do believe that we have to create opportunities for the youth to create their own jobs, to create their own businesses, and to employ their own staff. And that would really take off a lot of burden from the shoulders of the government. So people would have different options to look for, to get hired. They shouldn't just look at the government as the only place for employment. They have to look at the private sector. So what I am trying to do is to create an environment to help the private sector to grow so that people have more chances. Of course, we needed to do some amendments to some laws and regulations by securing the pensions and the retirement rights of the people even in the private sector, which we've done. And I think this is going to be a huge difference in terms of growing the private sector, which has been essential in the development of our economy and our region.

Maryam Moshiri: How worried are you, though, about young people leaving this country and looking for work and opportunities elsewhere because they don't believe they have them here yet?

PM Masrour Barzani: Well, I think this is a general question. I think different people would give you different answers. There are always ambitious people. There are always people who may want to leave the country and seek opportunities elsewhere. It's not only happening in Kurdistan, but it's happening in even the most advanced countries. People travel from one country to another. They're looking at different opportunities in different parts of the world. But I'll tell you that we have more than 100,000 foreign employees in Kurdistan. So if there is no job opportunity here in Kurdistan, how come we would have 100,000 foreign employees that are working in Kurdistan? Recently, we have worked with the private sector, and every company that at least 75% of the workforce must be local. So we are increasing this opportunity for job opportunities for people. We are not there yet, but we are trying as hard as we possibly can to employ many more people and give more opportunities to our youth. But they have to help us also. Let me finish by this. This is a shared responsibility. People shouldn't look at the government as the only regulator, as the only authority. The government is part of these people. We are doing what people want. So they need to engage with us. People also have a responsibility. There is a shared responsibility. So all of us have duties and have rights. So we need to perform our duties so that we could all enjoy our rights equally.

Maryam Moshiri: Let's talk about women. We all know how important the role of women is in any country's success. There is a bigger proportion of unemployed women in this country than there are men. What are you doing to empower women in Kurdistan, both in the private and the public sector?

PM Masrour Barzani: Well, I can tell you in the public sector, we have more women ministers than any other cabinet in the history of Kurdistan government. And some of them are here. So it's not just at the ministerial level, but also at the different government institutions and organizations. We have women that are working. Let me tell you one thing. I don't believe that you need to empower women or give chances to women because of their gender. I think women are very talented, and they've proven this. They've proven to be very talented and very competent. So all we need is to give equal opportunities to men and women. And this is what I'm doing. This is what I've done in my government. And of course, we have another organization that is for women and development. And Dr. Hamzat is here, she's heading that organization, so we are also, as government, we are supporting that and every other NGO. We need women to be more engaged. It's a cultural thing also, and I think there is a change of the mindset of our own people that needs to be more supportive of women active and women engagement in society.

Maryam Moshiri: It's fantastic to see women in the cabinet. It's fantastic to hear what you're saying. But what about women who don't live in cities, who don't have access to education, women who live outside of the capitals, the big cities in this region, what's being done to give them the education and the opportunities that women in the city have?

PM Masrour Barzani: Look, there is always going to be a difference, but our goal is to, like diversifying our economy, we are also diversifying our resources. We are creating more administration. We are giving more power to local governments and districts, apart from the major cities. So we are bringing more services. Once you have more government services, you need to have more employees, and definitely, people from those regions can work in the government sector in those areas but more importantly, we are trying to provide more opportunities in different parts of Kurdistan. For instance, tourism is one of the very important, let's say, sectors that we can develop, and many women can actually take advantage of that situation because each city and each province here in Kurdistan has its own unique character, and we can empower those and give more support to those provinces and cities and villages and districts by supporting that sector where they are good at. And this is what we are doing. And about schools, we are building schools in the most remote villages. We are bringing roads and services to the most remote villages. But unfortunately, we are not doing everything we want because we don't have the resources to support the vision that we have, and that, once again, is because of how unfair Baghdad has been in providing the fair share of Kurdistan in the overall Iraqi budget. If we have support, imagine the developments that we have in Kurdistan without support from Baghdad. But if we did have support from Baghdad, if we did get our fair share of the budget, imagine where Kurdistan would have been now. I mean, it would be a much different place, a much better place. Well, we are not going to stop. We will do everything we possibly can, and we are looking at every part of Kurdistan, not just the main cities.

Maryam Moshiri: Let's talk a little bit about minorities in this country. What's being done to protect minorities against ongoing threats?

PM Masrour Barzani: First of all, I'm personally not very fond of the word minorities, because we have paid a heavy price for being a minority, and we have always been looked down upon in the country. So it's not about the majority and minority; it's about the diversity of communities and religions and ethnicities. We have different communities in Kurdistan, and they all enjoy the same rights. Law is above all, so we are not going to support one who belongs to, let's say, a majority group and one who belongs to, let's say, a smaller group. Absolutely not. Everybody is equal in Kurdistan. And of course, if there are incidents, we are looking into them. If there are issues, we are looking into them. But I think actions speak louder than words. So no matter what they say, I think if you look at Kurdistan, that is hosting now more than 1 million IDPs from other parts of Iraq and about 250,000 refugees from neighboring countries. That speaks volumes about where Kurdistan stands on the rights of different communities in Kurdistan.

Maryam Moshiri: There are hundreds of thousands of Yazidis who have come from Sinjar because of ISIS. How are you going to help those Yazidis to get back to Sinjar?

PM Masrour Barzani: Well, they have all the right to go back, but they need to go back with dignity. They have to go back as victorious. These are people that unfortunately have been victims of ISIS and unfortunately until now the situation is not supportive for their return. They want to go back to their homes. They want to feel secure. They want to have services. They want to have schools. They want to have, you know, health services in their cities. How can you facilitate that? We have signed an agreement with the federal government of Iraq, and we were hoping that that agreement would be implemented. Unfortunately, it has not been implemented by the federal government because there are elements in Sinjar that are not challenging us here in Kurdistan, but they're also challenging the federal government and the prime minister’s decision himself. So basically, there are elements that are more powerful than the government institutions that are not allowing the agreement to be implemented. And of course, we cannot force anyone to leave Kurdistan to go and live in uncertain conditions. And that's why we will try to push and ask for support that the Sinjar Agreement, in this case, be implemented as it is. And I think that would give a good opportunity for people, the Yazidi people, and not just Yazidi people, to go back to their cities and towns.

Maryam Moshiri: Let's talk about freedom of speech because according to Reporters Without Borders, Iraq is, I think, one of the worst countries in the world in terms of journalistic freedom. Can a journalist in this country question the government openly without fear of arrest?

PM Masrour Barzani: I cannot speak for the rest of Iraq, but I'm responsible for Kurdistan, and I can tell you yes. People criticize, they criticize my government every day, and they're free. There is a difference between chaos and freedom. There is also a difference between freedom of expression and defamation. Obviously, journalism is a very honorable work.

Maryam Moshiri: Thank you.

PM Masrour Barzani: Of course. And I personally respect them very much. And I think journalists here in Kurdistan are very active. And they're very influential. So definitely, they have the rights to express, to criticize. And I hope that most of their criticism would be to build Kurdistan and to help us learn from our mistakes and to realize the shortcomings so that we could have a, you know, they could have a positive impact on the decisions that we make. But I think this has been said more generally. My, to everybody that is criticizing us, I hope that they would give us data. You know, they say that Kurdistan is on a setback and, you know, again, I'm not speaking for the rest of Iraq, but I'm speaking for Kurdistan. I hope that there would be some comparison and some data provided five years, 10 years ago, and today, where journalism is and how the government has treated journalists and this profession. We have been given all the support that we possibly can within the law. But I have a question for you and for the audience and probably the people who are looking at us. I'm so flattered that everybody is so enthusiastic and so keen about the rights of freedom of expression. What about the right of existence? We as a nation also are entitled to exist and to be free. So how could you focus on the freedom of an individual but ignore the freedom of a whole nation? Can you possibly do both?

Maryam Moshiri: Absolutely. And I'm not saying that one should be forsaken for the other, but I'm saying that everything has to happen and once you have a free society, you can make free choices. We touched a little bit about the United States, well, the Middle East conflict, and the role of the Arab world, and I want to talk now about the United States' role, particularly its relationship with the Kurdistan Region. You've always enjoyed a pretty close relationship with the U.S. Do you think this collaboration is continuing in the way that it has in the past and how important is it to regional stability?

PM Masrour Barzani: Well, let me say that we are thankful to the United States for the support that they have provided since 2003 and until now. They've been very helpful in supporting all of Iraq and Kurdistan and especially during the war with ISIS. They have provided military support to Peshmerga, airstrikes against Daesh. So we are all very thankful for the U.S. support. Now I cannot speak on behalf of the United States. They decide where their priorities are and they decide, you know, how to make their policies. But I think over the years, the disengagement of the United States to a greater degree, or the decision to draw down their engagement, maybe a better phrase, has left a gap. And that gap, unfortunately, wasn't filled by the right actors. Unfortunately, there was a lot of advantages that was taken by different elements. I don't want to be very specific. But I think it's important for the U.S. to maintain its good relations with the country, and especially with Kurdistan. We would like them to be more engaged on an economic level. I mean, they don't have to be, to look at the military presence, but I'm talking about economic engagement, political engagement. So yes, the U.S. is a great ally. It's a country that we thank, thank the American people, American institutions for their support but contrary to some people who may think they shouldn't be here, we think that their presence in the region is still very much needed.

Maryam Moshiri: Another player potentially, of course, is China. It's expanding its sphere of influence. A Chinese company recently replaced Exxon, did it not, at a major Iraqi oil field, and opened visa applications, I believe, from Erbil quite recently. How big a player is China? Is China going to fill that gap that you just told me about?

PM Masrour Barzani: Look, China is a great country. And like every other country or superpower, and they're trying to expand their influence. They're looking at Iraq as a market. They've had historical relations with Iraq and they're looking at economic opportunities. Of course, when it comes to business, whoever gives better options and arrives first and has, let's say, better terms and conditions can win. And the Chinese are taking this very, you know, looking at this opportunity very seriously. They are in Iraq and they are also in Kurdistan. We welcome everyone who wants to expand the relations with our region and to help develop our economy.

Maryam Moshiri: Let me ask you a little bit about your vision for Kurdistan Region. What do you see over the next few years? How do you see things playing out?

PM Masrour Barzani: Wow. It's a very big question, so take your time. It is a big question. Well, I would like to see Kurdistan developed, obviously. Like I said, I want to see the citizens be the center of attention to every government, mine or after me. I would like to see time has value. I would like to see bureaucracy stop. I would like to see everyone getting a fair and equal opportunity. I want to see that people in Kurdistan don't look at any other country to look up to, but to be the model and symbols for others to look up to.

Maryam Moshiri: Now, how much of that vision is under your control?

PM Masrour Barzani: I'm one person. I can share my views and ideas with my colleagues and people, but I need every single citizen of Kurdistan to help me achieve that goal. If there was something that you could obtain for this country immediately with no problems at all, what would it be? What would be your wish? If you had a wish that I could grant for you right now.

PM Masrour Barzani: Right. Well, let me say, you know, the ingredients for success basically, what you're saying. Justice is very important. Equality, justice are the ingredients to success. I think here in Iraq, we as the Kurds feel that there has been a lot of injustice throughout history against our people. Even today, in this Iraq, in the federal Iraq, we don't see justice served. So justice is really the key, but also honesty. Because there are many players who come and talk and deliver speeches and share ideas. They say something, but they do something completely different. I wish that everybody would commit themselves and be honest and deliver to what they promise. I think honesty is really the key. Once you deal with a person, once you deal with an institution or an organization, if you know where they stand and you know what they say, it's exactly what they mean. And that's exactly what they do. Then you can really adjust yourself. I think in our case, in this region, most of the time, people say things for the audience or for the other side, knowing that this is exactly what they want to hear. But they're not honest in telling the truth. So I think justice and honesty.

Maryam Moshiri: OK, interesting answer. Well, Your Excellency, thank you very much for answering all my questions. And a round of applause. So as I mentioned before, now is the opportunity for your questions to be answered by His Excellency. I've asked you to only put your questions through the app for now. If we have time to answer questions from the audience, we will do so. But I'd like to start with this question from Ibrahim, Your Excellency, and the question is, what more can be done to produce and export made in Kurdistan products?

PM Masrour Barzani: Well, it's a good question. Actually, last year I promised that we will find an international market for Kurdistan's products. Today I'm proud to say that we have found that market and that pomegranates, apples, honey, grapes are being exported to the Gulf. 

Maryam Moshiri: I'm expecting a big box of those for me at the end.

PM Masrour Barzani: Really? I don't know if they are.

Maryam Moshiri: I'm joking, I'm joking.

PM Masrour Barzani:  Yeah, but this is the beginning. And my job as the government is to regulate and find that market, and find that market, find that supply chain for investments and also then to connect our private sector to the international market which we have done. So we've done most of our part and from now on we'll leave it to our farmers and to our private sector to make these connections and to make sure that everybody gets the taste of Kurdistan's fruits and products.

Maryam Moshiri: Sounds delicious. This question, Prime Minister, from Ator and this is, what is your plan to develop government departments to better serve the people?

PM Masrour Barzani: Like I said, routines and bureaucracy is basically one of the biggest problems that people complain about. And respect for the civilians. So what we've done, for instance, I'll just give you an example. I've visited many hospitals and unfortunately if it's cold or hot, people had to wait outside so we have tried to work with every local hospital and government buildings and departments to create and provide an adequate space for people, for the citizens to go before they are served. So basically respecting the citizens, cutting bureaucracy, and providing fast services to them. And of course, like I said, equality. You need to give services to people regardless of who they are and their rank and their origin and their race, but everybody has to be served equally. So this is, I think, the best way to serve people.

Maryam Moshiri: This question from Ali Mirkhan. KRI as a developing region requires energy and money. How do you plan energy transition in this state? What is it? I think he means the Kurdistan region is developing to develop requires energy and money. How do you plan energy transition in this state? 

PM Masrour Barzani: I don't know what the question means by transition energy but if he, I think, if he means looking at alternative energy or green energy, we are. We are looking at building dams to produce more electricity so hydroelectric power is on the agenda, but also solar energy and also gas instead of fossil fuel. So we are looking at all these other sources of renewable energy or green energy to produce more energy in the future. But again, also, I would ask the citizens to also look at this as something that belongs to them. It doesn't belong to the government. Let me tell you that energy doesn't belong to the government.

Maryam Moshiri: It belongs to you.

PM Masrour Barzani: It belongs to you. So use it as much as you need it. Do not waste it. If you help us, we can help you have more energy and more resources and better services. Let's ask this question from Onar and this is, how does the newly founded Kurdistan Accrediting Association for Education foster the quality of education?

Well, this is again something that I started building and I think it's important to elevate the standards of our education at the university levels so that we can follow certain criteria of where our education should be and how we can improve based on the world standards. So this accreditation body was created recently. It hasn't been into full effect but we could.

Maryam Moshiri: Do you hope it will make a difference?

PM Masrour Barzani: I think, yes, it will. I mean, it already has. Already our educational institutions are doing much better in many ways. There is better competition. And I think with this body that we've created, we can have more regulations and more observation and more control of the education.

Maryam Moshiri: This is a question which we touched on a little bit earlier but you're more than welcome to answer some more if you like. It's from Alind who asks how can Prime Minister Barzani solve the Erbil-Baghdad issues by fostering cooperation, stability, and unity?

PM Masrour Barzani: I have a responsibility. I have a responsibility to defend the rights of people of Kurdistan. My job is not to give up any constitutional rights of the Kurdistani people to please anyone. But whoever accepts me as a partner, as a real partner, and whoever is ready to implement the constitution the way it is, they can see me as a true friend and we can definitely improve the relationship between Baghdad and Erbil and I've been trying very hard to knock on Baghdad's doors on delivering these messages to the Prime Minister, to the government, but we are never going to give up any of our rights that are stipulated in the constitution.

Maryam Moshiri: A question here from Ibrahim who asks this, what more can Kurdistan's friends do in the UK to support KRG?

PM Masrour Barzani: Well, they can definitely be supportive by encouraging many UK companies to come and look at opportunities. That will be a good economic opportunity for them as well.

Maryam Moshiri: Is that a good relationship between the UK and Erbil in terms of investment?

PM Masrour Barzani: Yes, I think we have never had better relations than the UK than now, so with the UK than now. We have excellent relations with the UK and we are very pleased but I think having more engagement, having more support. Now of course political support, security support, military support, when we have common challenges and common problems, this is what we expect because this is what friends need each other when they're in tough times, they need each other to help each other. But again, during good times also, we want them to come and benefit. Kurdistan has huge potential. I think friends who have helped us through difficult times are entitled to also benefit from the resources that we have in Kurdistan.

Maryam Moshiri: Do you think that UK companies see the kind of stability they want to see within Kurdistan to be able to invest?

PM Masrour Barzani: Well, there are some companies. There are some, I think, more than 200 companies. Yesterday, I heard the Prime Minister Boris Johnson saying that. So there are many companies that are already operating here in Kurdistan, but I think there is potential for many, many more companies to come here.

Maryam Moshiri: This question from Masoud Hamid. What actions to increase awareness on climate change, that's water and food supply, and reforestation, what actions are being taken to increase awareness amongst people?

PM Masrour Barzani: We are trying to incorporate that into our curriculum at the very elementary level of schools so we have had these discussions with the Ministry of Education and higher education that education is the key. People need to be aware of some of the changes that are happening and also how they can protect their own environment and how can they be more responsible citizens. So this is what we can do but there are obviously other things that we don't control but it requires a more collective work with the international players and that's what we, for instance, are going to do in COP28. We are going to talk to partners and other players around the world that are much more powerful, and they are much more responsible for pollution and the-

Maryam Moshiri: Last thing, some people consider it unfair that a country like Iraq suffers so greatly from climate change and yet isn't one of those countries that is adding to it to the same level as some of the bigger nations. What can be done to address that imbalance?

PM Masrour Barzani:  I hope that people realize, when I started talking about climate change, I think people need to realize that they're not going to be the beneficiary of the violation of, you know, environmental, let's say, protection. So nobody is safe. Whether you're living here or any part in the world on the globe, you are going to be affected somehow, if not by the rainfall or the drought, but you're going to be affected by the wave of migrants who are going to bring their own problems to your own society. So they need to be aware that this is a global problem and it requires a global solution. Let's talk about this question from Binav who asks, what is your excellency's vision on supporting the private sector that can generate job opportunities?

PM Masrour Barzani: Like I said, we, you know, for any society to grow and to look at developing its economy, there are a few things that need to be happening there. One is security and thank God Kurdistan is much more secure than the rest of the region and we thank our services and Peshmerga and everybody who is doing a tremendous job day and night to keep us safe. So yes, security we do have it. Law, we are trying to amend some of the laws and investment laws to be more attractive to the investors to come and work here which eventually is going to expand the private sector and also the banking system which we are also working on very aggressively to provide that service so that the private sector investors, citizens, individuals will benefit from. So we are doing what we can.

Maryam Moshiri: This question from Rozan. What key initiatives do you believe will have the most significant positive impact on Kurdistan?

PM Masrour Barzani: Can you repeat that?

Maryam Moshiri: What key initiatives do you believe will have the most significant positive impact on Kurdistan?

PM Masrour Barzani: So what are you doing right now I guess the question is that you think is the number one initiative that you want to put forward to people and say this is going to make the most difference? You know I think I don't think speeches and talks are going to make that significant impact, but deeds do. And that's why many times when I go and visit cities and provinces, I don't promise them that I'm going to do this for you, but I'd rather wait until I deliver and then go and show them what I've done. So I think this is the best way to convince people. You need to show them success. Once they see it, they believe it.

Maryam Moshiri: This question from Ziga Abouzeid who says, what role can the international community play in supporting Kurdistan's aspirations for security? Although by all accounts, what you're saying is Kurdistan is very secure.

PM Masrour Barzani: Well security is not alone. Security, political stability, economic development come hand in hand. So we need to have all of the above to have a secure region. So we need to look at how we can develop our economy. We need to look at how we can have more political stability so that we could have a more secure region and it's vice versa. So all of these are working as three pillars and we need to do this. But there is something that I'd like to mention and that's the international law. You know, the Kurds, like many other nations, I think, deserve to have their own rights of self-determination. They have their own rights to live like many other nations.

Maryam Moshiri: So we need international guarantees that we will never ever again go through the atrocities that we've seen like the chemical bombardments or the unfair operations or the injustice that, you know, historical injustice that's happened to us.

PM Masrour Barzani: So what we need is really more than anything else, we need international guarantees. So if the international community wants to help us, they need to give us that guarantee that Kurds will never ever again be subject to attacks or to atrocities or to chemical bombardments or to any sort of ethnic cleansing or genocide war. So that's what we need to hear from the international community today. 

Maryam Moshiri: This question from Vladimir Van Vilgenberg. What will the effect on Kurdistan be if the elections in February are possibly postponed again?

PM Masrour Barzani: I hope they won't be postponed because I never supported the delay of the elections of last year. It was supposed to happen in October of 2022, and then they were postponed for 2023 and now to February 2024. I hope they are not postponed because basically we believe in democracy in Kurdistan, and we want to be the beacon of democracy in the region. It doesn't make any sense to not have elections. Now if one side or party or group doesn't want elections, I don't think that the people of Kurdistan need to pay the price for it. And I, more importantly, I think the international community, Baghdad, and the High Commission for Elections should not allow manipulation of this particular problem.

Maryam Moshiri: You think it's being manipulated?

PM Masrour Barzani: Absolutely, yes, it is. And we think that the election should happen this February. And if not, those who are responsible for postponing might be the only ones held accountable, not the people of Kurdistan.

A question here, interesting one from Shahan. Your Excellency, what would you advise diaspora Kurds?

PM Masrour Barzani: I want them to learn from their host countries and to come back and build Kurdistan.

Maryam Moshiri: Well, we've come to the end of the questions on the iPad, on the app. I was wondering if we have time for a few questions from the audience, perhaps? How many? Maybe two questions from the audience. I'd let the Prime Minister choose, or shall I choose for you?

PM Masrour Barzani: You choose, please.

Maryam Moshiri: OK. The gentleman here with the beard and the red tie.

PM Masrour Barzani: He already asked a question.

Maryam Moshiri: Have you already asked a question? OK. The gentleman up there. Yes, you. Tell us who you are first of all, and then ask your question, please.

Audience Member: Hello, Your Excellency. My name is Shahan Omar. I'm a student from the University of Dusseldorf. My question would be, would a secular Iraqi state solve the ideological and religious issues in Iraq and Kurdistan? Thank you.

PM Masrour Barzani: I didn't understand. Would a secular state solve the religious issues in Iraq? Well, Iraq is supposed to be a federal state, and I think it includes groups that are secular and includes people who are religious, but there is a coalition. It's not just about whether there is a secular system. It could be a secular system, but it could be a secular system but a dictatorship. We've seen this, and we still see it in other parts of the world. So it's not about secularism or a religious state. It's about the mentality that rules. It's again, it's about justice. So I think if you have people who believe in the rights of human beings above all and believe in the equality of humans and citizens, then we could have a good government.

Maryam Moshiri: Thank you. Before we go, no more questions, I'm afraid, from the floor, but I have one more question for you. We're here at the Middle East Peace and Security Forum. Why is it important to have this forum in the Kurdistan region today? Why is this key for not only this region, not only this country, but the world to have a forum like this where we can discuss openly what we've talked about over the last very exciting and interesting couple of days?

PM Masrour Barzani: Well, look at Kurdistan. Kurdistan is geopolitically located in a very strategic part of the world. We have, you know, we are here, we have Turkey, we have Iran, we have, you know, the rest of Iraq and Syria, the whole Middle East. We are basically the glue. We are connecting all these different communities and thousands of years of history and different cultures together. So I think we as the Kurds, instead of being elements of separation, elements of destabilization, we want to unite the region. We want to bring more stability to the region. We want to be the beacon of development and progress and democracy, and that's why these sorts of conferences are to show the world that we are different and we can be better.

Maryam Moshiri: Excellent answer. Thank you. Thank you so much to Prime Minister Barzani.