Golala Ruhani
Last updated: 20 October, 2012

Kurdistan – have it your way or the Turkish way?

Blessed with oil wealth, Iraqi Kurdistan has been developing rapidly since the fall of Saddam Hussein. But there are obstacles to overcome, writes Golala Ruhani, who recently attended the World Kurdish Congress.

Kurdish and non-Kurdish physicians, psychologists, architects, urban planners, sociologists, agronomists, medical professionals, economists and political scientists from all over the world gathered in Erbil, Kurdistan for the 2nd World Kurdish Congress 2012 earlier this week. The meeting, held under the auspices of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), was aimed at identifying strategies to develop quantitative research that may contribute to improve the quality of life in Kurdistan.

“Kurdistan is blessed with many treasures; such as oil and gas, and we need your help to get the best use of it for our people,” said Masoud Barzani, President of the Iraqi Kurdistan region, in the inaugural address.

Reportedly, oil production capacity in the Kurdistan region of Iraq is around 300,000 barrels per day. The question of how to best use this wealth to improve the quality of life in Kurdistan resonated throughout the congress.

Not to forget that Kurdistan is still part of Iraq, the high-profile meeting reflects the transformation the Kurdistan region has gone through in recent years. Since 2006 after the fall of Saddam Hussein and the implementation of the new Iraqi Government, a visible change is evident in the more stable Kurdish region: while construction is booming, investment is pouring in. And it’s not just coming from a vast array of Turkish companies; the construction, hotel, and retail companies from the Arab world have arrived as well.

It seems the KRG is investing a part of Kurdish wealth to cosmeticize the young nation. As soon as one enters the brand new Erbil International Airport, built at a cost of $US550 million by a Turkish company in 2010, one is greeted by Kurdish-speaking costume workers. However, the ones really running the airport are workers from Bangladesh, Syria and Egypt. And not just the Erbil airport. One spots foreign faces all over the town. They are working at the major hotels, restaurants, and almost all sectors in the service industry.

A waiter named Jay at one of the newly built five-star hotels came to Erbil a year ago from the Philippines. Before his arrival, he could not spot Iraq on the map, let alone had any knowledge about the existence of Kurds. A year on, he has learned how to say a few Kurdish phrases. And is happy to have a job.

“Kurds don’t accept these low-paid jobs,” said Sarko, an Erbil taxi driver. “We got lot of oil. Why should I work for 300 dollars and clean the streets while people are getting richer by the second! I will rather be unemployed than doing these jobs,” he continued.

The accelerated economic growth may trigger a fast urbanization, attracting farmers from the Kurdish countryside to sprawling urban centres like Erbil. For centuries, Kurds have tilled the fertile land in the Kurdish heartlands to earn a living. While migration from the countryside to towns may offer a modern and western lifestyle, it could threaten the region’s food sovereignty. In towns, people depend on foreign imports, mainly from neighbouring Turkey.

“Turkish goods, investors, music are all over the place,” says a shopkeeper named Sherwan in Qaysaryah (downtown Erbil). Asked if he had Kurdish honey from the mountains, he replies: “I have better quality from Turkey! In fact, much better. Forget the Kurdish honey, it is not as sweet as the one from Turkey”.

At the conference, hardly any time was spent discussing the Turkish influence in Kurdistan. Similarly, rights of women and freedom of expression were paid scant attention even if these are major problems facing the Kurdish society.

“The oil is making our people lazy. We as Kurds have been oppressed for decades. Now we are bringing slaves to clean our streets. Kurds have always been oppressed now we are turning into our own worst enemies,” a taxi driver complained.

The conference in Erbil, by and large, exuded an impression that the KRG was aiming to attract the Kurdish diaspora. However, attracting the diasporic Kurdish entrepreneurs merely by invoking nationalism is not likely to be enough in view of bureaucratic red-tapism, rampant corruption, and nepotism.

The procedures to facilitate business ventures need a significant improvement. What is to be done? The KRG and local councils bear the major responsibility in this regard. The political leadership should take measure to stem the growing corruption. Inefficiency should be checked and nepotism reined in. Most importantly, political stability will be the prerequisite to attract foreign investors.