Iraqi Kurdistan‘A Country Living On Roller Skates’
Hugh Pope finds out why Iraqi Kurds who have migrated to Europe are on their way back to their unpredictable home country
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English Channel crossings that end in tragedy highlight how many Iraqi Kurds have been willing to take dramatic, expensive risks to reach a dream of prosperity and stability in richer countries in Europe. But 10 days spent in Iraqi Kurdistan reveals another, parallel, reality: a small but still significant number of Kurds who are obliged or ready to return.
“You should see my house in Erbil – it’s absolutely fantastic!” an Iraqi Kurd said as we chatted in the slick and shiny airport of Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital. “Sure, I’ll stick to my car wash business in Manchester for a couple more years but I plan to come back here with my family and set up a car repair place. In Britain, you can never really save money.”
Who is making the right move?
It has always been tough knowing what future to bet on in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, a shape-shifting homeland for some six to seven million people. Hopes and opportunities have to be weighed against the repeated experience that everything can change at lightning speed.
“How many collapses have we seen in our lifetimes? Three, four? No, many more!” joked former Iraqi Kurdish government minister Hussain Sinjari over dinner one evening.
In a strange contrast to the serenity of his hosts’ elegant home – where the walls were hung with fine Iraqi Kurdish modern art – guests chimed in to count the catastrophes: the failure of the first modern Kurdish rebellion in the 1960s; the collapse of another Kurdish revolt in the mid-1970s; the Halabja chemical attack and Iraqi ‘Anfal’ murders of more than 50,000 Kurds in the 1980s; the 1.5 million refugees forced to flee after the Gulf war of 1991; the inter-Kurdish civil conflict of the mid-1990s; and the sudden shock when advancing Islamic State fighters were on the point of taking Erbil airport in 2014.
For its critics, Iraqi Kurdistan has wasted its chances and once again failed to prepare for a possible new perfect storm. The threats are rising again: regional meddling, a possible withdrawal of US bases, rampant domestic corruption, newly violent internal divisions, rising inequality, popular frustration and economic breakdown.
“Iraqi Kurdistan is like a country living on roller skates,” said another of the dinner guests, Jonathan Randal, a veteran reporter and author of After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness? My encounters with Kurdistan. “There’s always a chance it’ll fall flat on its back.”
That’s why everyone in Iraqi Kurdistan takes precautions.
Palaces, ministries, hotels, embassies and even NGO hostels are ringed with barbed wire, guards and blast walls. Some even have secure safe rooms in case of sudden attack. The US Embassy has thick bomb shelters that are quickly accessible, stretchers readied against walls and helmets and flak-jackets on stands in most offices. A busy media organisation keeps all its work in the digital cloud, so reporters can scatter with their phones and laptops at a moment’s notice. On the streets, people often leave big shipping stickers on the windows of their cars, years after they bought the vehicles.
“They want their car to look new, so it can be sold quickly if they have to,” said a business leader in the second eastern city of Suleymani. “We live an ephemeral life.”
That sense of insecurity is magnified by a strong undercurrent of complaints that the rulers of Iraqi Kurdistan – descendants of the heroes of the Kurdish national movement like the late Mullah Mustafa Barzani and Jalal Talabani – are taking an unjustly large slice of the country’s business, even as their feuding prevents the emergence of a coherent unity.
In an office dominated by a portrait of his famous late father – to which I was taken in a chauffeur-driven, high-end SUV – one of them ruefully admitted: “We still haven’t found the balance between rivalry and responsibility.”
Again and again, Iraqi Kurds said they felt they had lost many of the essential freedoms, purity and democratic ambitions nurtured over the course of a century of desperate rebellions.
While almost all Iraqi Kurds voted in their first free election in 1992, popular alienation is such that turnout in 2021’s Iraqi national elections averaged just 37% in the three north-eastern provinces of Iraq that make up the Iraqi Kurdistan Region.
“In reality, participation was only half that,” said a Suleymani journalist. “We are doing okay, if you compare us to the rest of Iraq. But things may explode at any time. People are frustrated. You can’t start a middle-sized business without giving a share to the ruling parties.”
A miscalculated referendum on independence for Iraqi Kurdistan in 2017 also cost Iraqi Kurds dearly. Iraqi central forces reacted by retaking the ethnically mixed, oil-rich province Kirkuk, once controlled and claimed by the Kurds as their ‘Jerusalem’. Pressure grew from big regional neighbours Turkey and Iran, both of which regularly attack parts of Iraqi Kurdistan with impunity. International opinion also turned sharply against the Iraqi Kurdish leadership.
“As Angela Merkel said when we went on our [begging for] ‘forgiveness tour’: we lost our aura of invincibility, the way people thought we were untouchable,” said one national Iraqi Kurdish politician.
To add to Iraqi Kurdistan’s troubles, the income that fuelled much of its recent growth is in danger, with one diplomat foreseeing “financial freefall”. The oil fields which Erbil can operate independently are depleted. New hydrocarbon investment is hampered by the negative responses to the independence referendum and countervailing pressure on international oil majors by the central government. Baghdad’s contribution to the autonomous region’s budget is subject to always slippery negotiations and cutbacks.
“There are still many Saddams in Baghdad who want to destroy Kurdistan – they can’t cut our necks any more, so they cut our pay,” said one senior government official. He estimated that in the worst years, from 2015 to 2019, officials only received one quarter of their annual salaries.
The fact that Iraq is actually an oil-rich country and the world has many other demands on its resources – notably the war in Ukraine – means that much of the UN aid to Iraq is likely to taper off sharply. At the same time, drought and climate change have hit northern Iraq’s agriculture, with wheat production dropping 70% last year.
And yet. Despite these woes, squandered opportunities and an uncertain future – a perhaps predictable state of unpredictability – the reality remains that Iraqi Kurdistan has managed to change out of recognition in the three decades since it emerged from one of the country’s most ruinous episodes in 1990-91 after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
Back then, already traumatised by a decade of genocidal massacres, Iraqi Kurds faced the shock of freezing mountain refugee camps and the subsequent prospect of lives without electricity, seeds, fuel or money. Thousands of villages in the once-idyllic mountains lay in ruins, stamped flat by a veritable ogre, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Roads were potholed tracks flanked by minefields.
Today, city centres bustle with well-groomed young people, with men and women now beginning to mix and widen the boundaries of the region’s conservative society. There has been a spectacular improvement infrastructure and buildings, with not one pothole visible on a 300km road trip across the country.
Erbil, the capital, now has six concentric circles of ring road around its ancient capital: the most recent 150-metre-wide highway to approach completion is the pride and joy of Prime Minister Masrur Barzani.
Such connections have helped fuel a building boom.
After the region stumbled in a financial crisis a decade ago, well-connected businesses are once again putting up innumerable towers and housing estates for the rich with names like Empire and Royal City. One aims to have an artificial lake and the world’s highest fountain.
Gleaming SUVs stand in front of many villas, sometimes even a Bentley. Glitzy malls and palm trees mean the aesthetic compass is firmly pointed at the oil-rich Arab countries of the Gulf.
Indeed, on several levels, it feels as if Iraqi Kurdistan is subtly knitting back together with the rest of Iraq. At the top – where the 2005 constitution specifies that the Iraqi president has to be Kurdish – senior Iraqi Kurds say they sense that the now-powerful Shia majority indulges the Kurds, appreciating their role in holding the ring between the country’s many religious and ethnic imbalances.
Despite frictions over how to share the national budget, Iraqi Kurdish officials seem more appreciative of a growing mutual dependence with the Arab south. Significant numbers of the new flats being built round Kurdish cities are being sold to people from the rest of Iraq. A slick new Erbil media outfit has decided to call itself +964, Iraq’s international dialling code.
Some young people say they are learning Arabic again. A surprising number of people now say out loud that there were actually good things about being together under Iraqi Saddam Hussein.
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“Relatively, the Arabs are better, they respect us more than our other neighbours, the Turks and the Persians,” said an Iraqi political analyst in Suleymani. “At least in Iraq I can now say I am a Kurd, this is my flag, this is my language, this is my place in the constitution.”
The fact that Iraqi Kurdistan has always been the place where the Arab, Turkish and Iranian worlds overlap and play out their conflicts – and bitter lessons from history that American and European military and political support can be volatile, even if the US is building a billion-dollar consulate on the outskirts of Erbil – have long persuaded or forced Kurds to reach for new horizons.
But, as the Sleymani journalist put it, “it’s hard to get to Europe, it’s hard to get status once you’re there, and even then, Europe is in an economic crisis”.
On top of that, fewer poor Iraqi Kurds now try to go to Europe since the cost of being smuggled there can range from $10,000 to $20,000. Legal routes to join would-be husbands or other family are time-consuming and costly. Those queueing to take a difficult language exam for visas to live in Germany, for instance, were clearly members of privileged, educated or moneyed classes.
There’s another class of returnee too: those who do so while having the security of a European passport that would enable them to leave quickly. “If there’s any trouble here,” one new British citizen told me as he bought some gold in the Erbil bazaar, “I’ll just call up my embassy.”
For all these reasons, at least once a day, in shops or restaurants, a cheery greeting would introduce a new returnee. I would express surprise that the person would choose to leave the safety of Europe and the person would explain – with varying degrees of regret or satisfaction – that life in Europe had either proved too expensive, too difficult in terms of paperwork or too disappointing compared to the dream they had had.
“It’s better in Europe, of course – it’s so corrupt here, with everything run by the political parties,” said a man who spent his childhood in Britain and then moved back reluctantly as a teenager with his parents and now sells honey in the Suleymani bazaar. “But we have our families here. Iraq is good too.”
Hugh Pope is an author and co-editor, most recently of ‘The Keys to Democracy: Sortition as a New Model for Citizen Power’ by his father the late Maurice Pope