In November I visited for the sixth time the Kurdistan Region of Iraq with the All-Party Parliamentary Group to examine the current issues facing the region. For me the contrast with my first visit was astonishing and heartening. The first few visits it was easy to feel something of a pioneer – few Western faces and a region slowly waking after a long sleep. Today there is the modern airport terminal and several new five star hotels, each with lobbies full of business people, local and Western, discussing developments and deals.
In amongst the business people there are the growing numbers of tourists. Just two years ago we were amazed to meet some tourists from London out in the countryside, now they wouldn’t stand out. The roads throng with new cars, new housing estates proliferate and down town Erbil is buzzing. As with any booming economy the sky line is full of cranes – offices, hotels, homes, roads all under construction.
Unlike many post conflict countries Iraq doesn’t have to rely on international aid to help rebuild its economy. Oil and gas are plentiful and the development of fields throughout the country will provide a strong source of revenue for decades to come. However the politics of this are difficult as the Government in Baghdad seeks to control all of the country’s oil exports. The Kurdistan Regional Government is supposed to receive 17% of all Iraq’s oil revenues, but this has been a contentious issue with frequent delays in payment to the region.
We visited the Taq Taq oil field run by the Taq Taq Operations Company and Turkish British oil company Genel. The oil is known as the “champagne” of Kurdistan as it is very light and to date all the operational wells flow naturally. Of the 500 employees on site around 400 are local people with only 100 being expats. Employees are hired from local villages and trained by the company for their roles, ensuring that the financial benefits are shared with local communities.
It is expected that there will be 18 wells producing around 200,000 barrels a day. The Kurdistan Region has a target of 1 million barrels of oil a day by 2015, and 2 million barrels by 2019. Already this one oil field produces around a sixth of Turkey’s daily oil needs and a new oil pipeline to Turkey will be in operation shortly. Turning on the tap for this pipeline might be seen as a Kurdish act of defiance by the Government in Baghdad, nonetheless there was a confidence in the region that oil would begin flowing sometime in December.
Unlike the rest of Iraq, the Kurdistan region has gone years without terrorist attacks but at the end of September Al Qaeda did make it through security. The Interior Minister told us that during the election period the sheer numbers of people moving around had made it possible for the terrorists to reach Erbil. Their target was the regional Government’s security forces headquarters; however they didn’t make it through the outer gates. Guards suspected an attack and began shooting at the terrorists – six Kurds died with one guard sacrificing himself by embracing a suicide bomber to stop him getting any further and killing more people.
Despite this tragic single incident the economy continues to grow helping the region’s stability enormously, including importantly its relationship with Turkey. In the recent past relations between the Kurds and Turkey were so bad that around 200,000 Turkish troops were on the border, now 200,000 people from Turkey work in the region.
When our group met the President of the region, Massoud Barzani, he did not hide his pessimism about the Iraqi political situation following elections, due early next year. He does not think much will change, and described the country as being divided between Kurds, Sunni and Shia with little enthusiasm for building bridges between communities. He was also very pessimistic about the situation in Syria. The perception in Kurdistan is that the response by the Syrian regime to the international community in relation to chemical weapons leaves them to pursue their war on the people unhindered.
During our visit we met representatives of five Syrian Kurdish groups who are part of the Syrian opposition coalition. They were keen to stress that there is an organised opposition in Syria, and that this is different to the Al Qaeda terrorist groups who are exploiting the situation. Ideally they would like each of the groups represented in the Geneva 2 talks, currently there is a limit of one Kurdish representative. They understood that the West will not supply arms, but were keen to stress the opposition of the majority of Kurdish groups to the Syrian regime.
The immediate impact in the region of the conflict in Syria has been a massive influx of refugees. Kurdistan is very welcoming to them as many of the local population have experienced being refugees themselves. Much of the support to the refugees is being funded by the Kurdish Regional Government and not international aid agencies and governments. As in other countries in the Middle East around half of the refugees are not living in camps but in urban areas.
Our visit to the Domiz refugee camp showed an effective system trying to support families who have been uprooted from homes with no prospect of an early return. 75,000 people live, work and go to school there. The services are not sufficient but there is evidence of significant support from the Kurdish Regional Government, the local Governorate and international agencies.
The Kurdistan region is not without its own political tensions. Following the recent local elections discussions are still underway about forming a regional government. We met several newly elected MPs who are keen to take up their roles but are waiting for the discussions to arrive at a conclusion. This is still a relatively new democracy, finding its way. On the positive side there is huge potential – increasing trade and a thriving economy. Yet it continues to exist in a difficult neighbourhood trying to keep its citizens safe with a deadly war on its borders and increasing terrorist attacks in the rest of Iraq.