What next for Iraqʹs Kurds?

A sense of resignation and pessimism is spreading through the Kurdistan region of Iraq, especially among the younger generation. The economic standstill, rampant youth unemployment and the omnipotence of the clans are driving people to despair. Dara Alani reports from Sulaymaniyah

By Dara Alani

After several years of relative stability and economic prosperity, the region of Iraqi Kurdistan has suffered major setbacks, largely due to two events that took place in the years 2014 and 2017. In 2014 Nouri al-Maliki, Iraqʹs prime minister at the time, decided – in view of the escalating oil conflict in northern Iraq – to cut its state funding to the KRG, the Kurdistan Regional Government. This decision had devastating political and economic consequences, which also brought social problems to the region.

In this already difficult situation, a referendum on Iraqi Kurdistanʹs independence was then called on 25 September 2017. As a consequence of the referendum result, which according to the electoral commission saw 92 percent of voters in favour of independence, the situation became even worse. Once the result of the ballot was made public on 10 October 2017, Iraqʹs prime minister Haider al-Abadi decided to close Sulaymaniyah and Erbil airports to foreign flights and the central government in Baghdad took back around 50 percent of the territory, including Kirkuk, which had been under Kurdish control after being liberated from "Islamic State" (IS).

The borders with Iran and Turkey were also initially closed following the referendum and trade was severely restricted. Before the vote, Iraqi Kurdistan had produced around 500 to 600 barrels of oil a day for the world market. The price of oil had been on the rise in the lead-up to the referendum, but from then on the region was cut off from the oil market.

The consequences of draconian austerity measures

Former president of Iraqʹs autonomous Kurdish region, Massoud Barzani (photo: picture-alliance/AA)
Glückloser Präsident der kurdischen Autonomiegebiete im Norden des Iraks: Die Kurden hatten sich 2017 in einer Volksabstimmung mit überwältigender Mehrheit für die Unabhängigkeit ausgesprochen. Die Zentralregierung in Bagdad erkannte das Ergebnis jedoch nicht an und verhängte Strafmaßnahmen. Der 72 Jahre alte Masud Barsani erklärte danach seinen Rückzug vom Präsidentenamt.

The 2014 decision by the Iraqi central government in Baghdad had prompted the KRG to introduce wide-ranging austerity measures. Among other things, a savings system was put in place for civil service salaries, under which part of the salary was withheld as a kind of savings deposit for employees, though none of the employees had agreed to this. The measure led to strikes at regular intervals, by groups including teachers. Those working for the interior ministry and the Kurdish military units of the Peshmerga were the only people exempted from the saving scheme.

It is no surprise, then, that the mood among the population is still very tense today. A former student of politics at the University of Sulaymaniyah, who now ekes out a living as a taxi driver, is as pessimistic about the tense economic and political situation in the Kurdistan region as you might expect. And about the influence that neighbouring countries are having in the region: "The things that Turkey and Iran want are being realised here," he complains. "They will pursue us all the way into the afterlife, that is our fate as Kurds."

In the hands of the clans

Many Kurds feel frustrated that all the decisions are being made by those political forces that control the militias, the weapons, the media and the economy. Political parties do exist in the region, itʹs true, and they are all big on promises, but in practice many people have the impression that Iraqi Kurdistan is still essentially ruled by a few clans that form the real core of each of the parties.

Kurdish soldiers pose with a Kurdish flag in October 2014 in the training village Bonnland on the military training area of the Infanterieschule Hammelburg (Bavaria). 32 Peshmerga soldiers were trained in Lower Franconia for the fight against the IS terrorist militia (photo: David Ebener/dpa)
Schulterschluss gegen die Dschihadisten des "Islamischen Staates": Die Kurden im Nordirak genießen weitgehende Autonomierechte, streben aber die Unabhängigkeit an. Sie wurden im Kampf gegen die IS-Terrormiliz auch von der Bundeswehr unterstützt. Deutschland lieferte Waffen an die kurdischen Peschmerga-Kämpfer und bildete diese aus. Die PDK und die Familie Barsani gehören seit langem zu den dominierenden Kräften in den irakischen Kurdengebieten.

The economic channels are controlled by the two main parties, the "Kurdistan Democratic Party" (PDK), which alone holds 45 of the 111 parliamentary seats, and the "Patriotic Union of Kurdistan" (PUK), with its 21 seats. In view of their dominance of the political landscape, the people have little hope of fundamental political change in northern Iraq.

The graduate taxi-driver has three children; the rent on his flat is around 250 Euros, and his wife, who works as a primary school teacher, has not received her full salary for several years. For him, work is a daily struggle for financial survival. He has to raise the missing money to support himself and his family. And as a result he – like many other Kurds in northern Iraq – believes that the officials and parties are corrupt and take "the biggest piece of the pie" for themselves. He has just as little faith in the independence of the justice system.

Civilians bear the brunt

Another example of the enduring misery in the region is provided by a teacher from Sulaymaniyah, who finished university in 2009 and had to wait until 2014 to get a job. He is still unmarried and lives with his parents: so far, he doesnʹt see any opportunity to build a future for himself. His original income of around 500 euros has been reduced to 280 through the state-ordered saving system, and is not paid out regularly, either. Sometimes his salary arrives several months late. It often happens that people who work for certain ministries are paid first, and other ministries only follow later.

Another consequence of the austerity measures is the worsening state of the regionʹs infrastructure. Paths and streets are disintegrating. After an unusually wet year, there are now clear signs that no money has been available for, or has been spent on, road repairs, and the number of accidents is rising steadily. 

View of the mountains near Sulaymaniyah (photo: Dara Alani)
Blühende Landschaften, fehlende ökonomische Potenziale: Vor allem die fruchtbaren Berge Kurdistans böten in vielerlei Hinsicht Chancen für einen wirtschaftlichen Aufbruch in der Region Nordirak-Kurdistan, was sich in den Jahren vor 2014 bereits schon gezeigt hatte. Doch dieser Prozess ist nunmehr ins Stocken geraten. Der Grund: Es fehlen langfristige strategische Planungen und Investitionen, um die agrarwirtschaftlichen und touristischen Potenziale wirklich gewinnbringend zu nutzen.

Every piece of news regarding upcoming government reshuffles and the opening or closing of airports or borders has an immediate effect on prices. Often, even rumours among the population are enough to trigger extreme swings in property prices, and the cost of everyday grocery items, over a few weeks or months.

No prospects for the younger generation

In these times of economic and political uncertainty, the younger generation in particular can see no prospects for their future in the region. Austerity has hit the school system and the universities just as hard as other sectors. And those graduating donʹt dazzle with their practical skills, expertise, innovation and new ideas. Most just hope to get a job in the state sector quickly after graduating, and all too often complain that these positions are usually reserved for people who are well-connected.

More than a few school and college leavers therefore see a career with the Peshmerga or jihadists as their only realistic option. Anyone who manages to scrape together enough money leaves their homeland and tries to emigrate to Europe.

However, there are real economic prospects for the region of Iraqi Kurdistan, for example in the tourism and agricultural sectors. Its fertile mountains in particular have great potential, as can be seen from the years before 2014 when Iraqi Kurdistan was beginning to get on its feet. This process has now come to a standstill, however: at the moment, the region lacks the long-term strategic planning and investment that would allow it to make really intensive use of its potential in agriculture and tourism.

Dara Alani

© Qantara 2019

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin