Some years back a young Iraqi Kurdish woman had to pass through Turkey but knew that talking Kurdish or mentioning Kurdistan could be awkward. The problem was that her first name was Kurdistan. When asked her name at passport control she tried to evade the query but finally blurted out “Northern Iraq” – the Turkish alternative to the dreaded K word.
But the vacuum left by the departure of American soldiers is changing old habits and hostilities.
This was on display at a remarkable gathering this week in Erbil, the rapidly growing capital of the Kurdistan Region.
Senior international oil and gas executives joined Turkish and Kurdish ministers and officials to discuss a drive for a new economic relationship.
Two-thirds of the 1500 foreign companies in the Region already hail from Turkey and have been a powerful lobby for more commerce which is already worth 8 billion dollars a year.
But this week’s high-profile and choreographed courtship could build what a senior Turkish Foreign Ministry official called “new horizons of strategic partnership.”
The equation is brutally simple for both sides.Turkey lacks energy resources but could become the tenth largest economy in the world with a huge appetite for oil and gas. Just across the border Kurdistan has 45 billion barrels of oil and a maybe a century’s worth of gas
Ankara and Erbil agreed plans for new oil and gas pipelines. Turkey acquires reliable and diverse energy sources and routes. Kurdish gas is also cheaper than supplies from Russia, Iran and Azerbaijan. Kurdistan and Turkey join the chain of secure energy supplies to the Euro-Atlantic community and the UK
The Kurds monetise their assets and plough the proceeds into public services and diversifying their economy. Kurds could emuate Dubai but with far greater social justice. The Kurds aspire to more than a rentier state where an elite cocoons itself from democratic politics.
But Kurdistan is landlocked. Without a friendly neighbour it cannot export.
Its water, agriculture and energy resources would give it a living but it would be a stultifying and much poorer society.
Kurdistan is part of Iraq but relations with Baghdad are currently dire. Kurdish success in unleashing its energy sector, attracting major western companies and challenging bureaucrats and wannabe dictators in Baghdad have infuriated some in the central government
Others would want the rest of Iraq to take a leaf from the Kurdish book and boost public services and enterprise
The Iraqi PM claims that the Kurds cannot export energy without permission. The Kurds argue this centralist approach breaches the constitution agreed by the Iraqi people in 2005. They say that exported oil remains Iraqi oil and benefits the whole country. The Kurds will send the revenue to Baghdad minus the 17 percent share to which they are entitled under their version of the Barnet formula.
Exploiting their resources should not be seen as secessionist but a benefit to Iraq as a whole.
A solid link with Turkey based on unsentimental economics gives the Kurds greater leverage with Baghdad in finalising a feasible federal framework based on the constitution.
The Iraqi Prime Minister has helped Erbil by abusing Turkey as a hostile state.
The new Kurdo-Turkish link has just started and who knows where it will end
The architect of the energy synergy is the Kurdish Minister of Natural Resources Ashti Hawrami. He told me after the conference that putting economics in the driving seat means that “things that mattered once will come to matter less.”
Kurdistan can fairly present itself as a solution to many problems and allow new solutions to old problems to develop naturally.
There is a growing debate within Kurtdistan about whether an independent state is possible.
With Turkish support that could happen. Or Kurdistan could stay as part of Iraq and be independent in all but name. Autonomy with prosperity in a drug and crime free society could trump full independence.
Economic success could also exert a powerful gravitational pull on neighbouring provinces in Iraq including the Kurdish city of Kirkuk – their Jerusalem – but which is outside the current boundaries of the Region.
Growing economic and energy ties with Kirkuk and Mosul can make Kurdistan a political ally but changing boundaries may be unlikely.
But not impossible. Putting economics before politics doesn’t frighten the horses but allows mutual benefit and respect to create new realities.
And that will be the case in Turkey itself where aversion to the K word has been driven by fears of aiding rebellion in south east Turkey where most of its own Kurds live.
But Kurdish areas of Turkey can benefit from increased trade. Better conditions can undercut PKK guerillas whose 28 year war with Turkey has cost 40,000 lives and still prompts cross-border raids on their camps in the remote mountains within Iraqi Kurdistan. If the PKK were to lay down its arms then the Kurds would find it easier to negotiate a new relationship within Turkey.
This new “open door policy” can allow the Kurds to prosper, galvanise the rest of Iraq and reframe old and bitter disputes more constructively. Kurdistan is no longer taboo and its dynamism could be a force for good in the Middle East.
Gary Kent is the Administrator of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq