17 Jun 2010

Kurdistan's riches point to a bright future

Jonathan Rugman blogs on Kurdistan’s growing confidence in its economic future as questions remain about Iraq’s political deadlock in Baghdad.

Iraq’s Kurds are fond of a saying that they have “no friends but the mountains”. But this is no longer true. Stand up new friends Coca Cola, Price Waterhouse Coopers and Mercedes Benz; and listen as those once lonely Kurdish mountains now echo to the sound of foreign money.
This at least is what Falah Mustafa Bekir, a Minister in the Kurdish regional government, is telling a conference of potential investors in the City of London this week.

“Kurdistan is open for business”, he says, defending the controversial US and British invasion of Iraq as a “watershed moment” for the long-repressed Kurds, who naturally enough see their own wealth creation as a better guarantor of their new found freedom than departing foreign troops or whatever government is formed by squabbling politicians this summer in Baghdad.  
I haven’t visited the regional capital, Erbil, in more than decade, but my Kurdish friends tell me I wouldn’t recognise it; a brand new airport, designed by the same team who built Stansted in the UK; flights from Vienna, Abu Dhabi and Istanbul. A stock exchange is due to open later this year.
“I have never worked anywhere so welcoming to the west” says Andrew Snow, a senior American diplomat based in the city; a conclusion which is not so surprising given the coalition blood and treasure spent liberating Iraq from its murderous dictator.
Britain has been slow off the ground in investing in northern Iraq – a paltry £80m worth of business last year – and it is the job of Jeremy Macadie, the UK consul general there, to change that.
“I believe Kurdistan will become rich, possibly very rich” he says mysteriously. “The buzz on the street is that Kurdistan is the next Dubai, but with water.”
But there isn’t much of a mystery, really. It is oil, not water, which is why there are already 17 diplomatic missions with offices in Kurdistan.

Plus 38 oil companies, desperate for Iraq’s politicians to agree how to share the nation’s vast oil wealth so that drilling can begin in earnest. The forecast for Kurdistan? One hundred thousand barrels a day, then double that, then a million barrels of oil a day within five years.
The Turks are already onto the investment case, along with the Gulf states and the ever enterprising Lebanese. Trade with Turkey is worth over $5bn a year. No wonder the Kurdish leadership was in the Turkish capital, Ankara, last month. No wonder there is a Turkish consul in Erbil.

The Turks occasionally bomb remote stretches of Iraqi border in their doomed and never-ending quest to destroy their own Kurdish rebels, but this increasingly seems a side-show. As per my previous blog, the Turks are these days primarily in the business of overcoming their regional phobias rather than succumbing to them.
Two meetings touched me this week. One was with Kamran Karadaghi, the former chief of staff of Jalal Talabani, Iraq’s President. In a previous life he was a journalist and a frequent travelling companion of mine between Turkey and northern Iraq. Now Kamran cannot stop revelling in the fact that Kurdistan, the country he fled from in Saddam’s time to avoid death, is free.  
The other meeting was with Bayan and Sirwan Sami Abdul Rahman, the daughter and son of a senior Kurdish leader who was blown up by a suicide bomber in 2004. Their brother also died in the explosion, along with around a hundred other Kurds, when Iraq’s bloodletting was at its terrible worst. 
I had met Sami, their father, back in the 1990s, and like many Iraqi Kurds he had led an extraordinary life; mountain guerrilla, British-educated intellectual and former minister in one of Saddam Hussein’s many governments. Minister at least until Saddam sent secret agents to kill Sami’s boss with a detonating tape recorder. But that is another story.
Before his death, Sami had successfully argued for a federal constitution for the new Iraq, and how proud he would have been to see his grown up children in London this week fulfilling his dream of a Kurdistan standing on its own two feet. His daughter, Bayan, is now Iraqi Kurdistan’s representative to the UK. 
And so Iraq’s Kurds, a people who were gassed, murdered and exiled, have a good news story to tell. One we don’t hear often enough amid the understandable controversy of Iraq’s invasion.