Iraq's Transport Corridors – no place for Kurdistan?

Excluding Kurdistan from a new infrastructure project in Iraq, designed to connect the Gulf with Turkey via road and rail, is purely political – despite the economic unfeasibility argument.
Excluding Kurdistan from a new infrastructure project in Iraq, designed to connect the Gulf with Turkey via road and rail, is purely political – despite the economic unfeasibility argument.

Excluding Kurdistan from a new infrastructure project in Iraq, designed to connect the Gulf with Turkey via road and rail, is purely political – despite the economic unfeasibility argument. Commentary by Sardar Aziz

By Sardar Aziz

In May 2023, Iraq introduced a bold infrastructure project that spans its territory, connecting the Grand Faw Port on the Arabian Gulf with Turkey via rail and road networks.

At a cost of $17 billion, the Transport Corridors will serve as a new link between "Asia and Europe". The scheme was the main topic of discussion at a one-day conference in Baghdad, organised by Iraqi Prime Minster Mohammed Shia al-Sudani and attended by transport ministers and officials from the Gulf Cooperation Council, Iran, Turkey, Syria and Jordan.

Transforming transport infrastructure

The initiative aims to transform transport infrastructure in Iraq, following decades of conflict that have left road and rail networks in poor condition. This has not only affected human mobility, but also heightened the cost of trade and commerce, impeding international and regional movement of goods and services.

According to the Iraqi government, work on the Transport Corridors will officially begin in 2024 and extend in three phases until 2050. Within the first four years, the government aims to be able to move 22 million tons of bulk cargo by rail annually.

Iraq's Grand Faw Port project (image: AFP)
الحكومة العراقية تريد تحويل ميناء الفاو العراقي إلى نقطة ربط بين دول الخليج وتركيا: طريق التنمية يربط البصرة ببغداد والموصل، قبل أن يُكمل باتجاه الحدود التركية، متجاوِزًا بالكامل إقليم كردستان العراق. في أيار/مايو 2023، أطلق العراق مشروعًا جريئًا للبنية التحتية يمتد على أراضيه كافة ويربط ميناء الفاو الكبير على الخليج العربي بتركيا من خلال شبكات السكة الحديد والطرقات. الهدف من طريق التنمية هو إحداث تحوّل في البنية التحتية للمواصلات في العراق، بعدما تسببت عقودٌ من النزاع في تردّي شبكات الطرقات والسكك الحديد. ولم يؤثّر ذلك في قدرة الأشخاص على التنقّل فحسب، بل فاقم أيضًا من كلفة التجارة والتبادل التجاري، ما أدّى إلى عرقلة الحركة الدولية والإقليمية للسلع والخدمات.

Despite these ambitious goals, the Development Road has been subject to a range of criticism. Some analysts have argued that the project's capabilities and scope have been overstated, pointing to the fact that the feasibility assessment was a conducted by an Italian company specialising in the energy sector, with seemingly little experience in transportation design.

One of the most glaring issues with the project, however, is its intended route. Linking Basra to Baghdad and Mosul, before proceeding to the Turkish border, the Transport Corridors will bypass the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) entirely. According to Iraqi spokesman Basem al-Awadi, topographic and economic factors dictated this decision. Due to the region's mountainous terrain, al-Awadi suggested that a path through KRI would increase the project's first stage timeline by two years and its budget by $3 billion, bringing the total cost to $20 billion. 

Basra to Baghdad, Mosul and on to Turkey, bypassing Kurdistan

In an interview for Sada, Turkish-Iraqi researcher Mehmet Alaca argued that the exclusion of KRI was purely political. For Alaca, who previously wrote about the project, the 2017 referendum vote in KRI to secede from Iraq has pushed the central government to retaliate. Prior to the referendum, KRI maintained strong international ties through its oil companies, an anti-ISIS coalition and strong paradiplomacy

Since the referendum, the central government in Baghdad has moved to curb KRI's access to the world and turn it into a merely local administrative entity. In February 2022, the Iraqi Federal Supreme Court annulled an oil and gas law passed by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in 2007, preventing KRI from exporting its natural resources. This ruling also allowed Baghdad to hold Erbil accountable for prior oil income against budgetary allotments.

This was followed by the International Chamber of Commerce's decision in May 2023, which affirmed that the Iraqi National Oil Company is the only entity authorised to manage oil export operations through the Turkish port of Ceyhan. Yerevan Saeed, a lecturer in political economy at the University of Kurdistan interviewed for Sada, claimed that these rulings demonstrated a coordinated effort on the part of the central government to cut off Kurdistan from the outside world.

Impact evaluation of Iraq's transport corridors (image:
هل إقصاء إقليم كردستان العراق من طريق التنمية -كما يشير مراقبون- هو خطوة محض سياسية؟: وفقاً للحكومة العراقية يبدأ مشروع طريق التنمية في العراق رسمياً عام 2024 ويمتدّ على ثلاث مراحل حتى عام 2050. تسعى الحكومة، في الأعوام الأربعة الأولى، إلى نقل 22 مليون طن من الحمولة الكبيرة سنوياً عبر السكك الحديدية. وعلى الرغم من هذه الأهداف الطموحة، تعرّض طريق التنمية لمجموعة من الانتقادات. فقد اعتبر بعض المحللين أن هناك غلوّاً في الحديث عن قدرات المشروع ونطاقه.

Infrastructure is always political, especially when it comes to nationwide projects. But given that the Iraqi state governs under the fear of territorial disintegration, excluding KRI from the Transport Corridors is a risky move.

Iraqi Kurds will see the project as part of a strategy of de-development – intended to marginalise and exclude the KRI, which in turn can only lead to greater national discord.

As the KRI Minister of Transport and Communication himself emphasised, "there will be no road to development [in Iraq] without Kurdistan".

Sardar Aziz

© sada | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace 2023

Sardar Aziz is a former senior adviser to the Kurdish parliament.