This week an August 9 article in Forbes magazine discussed the economic recovery beginning in South Kurdistan. In “The Kurdish Economy Is Rebounding After Three Years Of Instability,” Zach D. Huff explains how after three years of crisis and “…decisive victories of the Iraqi and Kurdish forces against ISIS, confidence in Iraqi Kurdistan is coming back.”
Huff’s observations stand in stark contrast to many of the doom and gloom pieces about Iraqi Kurdistan coming out of several media outlets. Some professional bashers of the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq (KRG) went into high gear recently, especially following the announcement of a planned referendum on independence for September 25.
Articles by Michael Rubin in Washington D.C., for instance, carry titles such as ‘An independent Kurdistan would be a failed state,’ ‘Is the CIA about to dump a key Kurdish ally?' (he apparently thinks they should), and ‘Rather than defeat ISIS, Kurds are turning on Shiites’ (he thinks the KRG sells weapons to ISIS and is out to get Shiites).' In these kinds of discourses, Iraqi Kurdistan’s glass is not only half empty – it is full of the most dastardly, conniving, authoritarian, violent and corrupt leaders in the world.
Authors of the doom and gloom opinion pieces typically have nothing but praise for the KRG’s enemies and the leaders who ruined Iraq’s best chance at success. Rubin, for instance, never criticizes former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and appears to be an ardent admirer of the late Ahmed Chalabi – who was widely regarded by Iraqis of all sects as the least trustworthy and most corrupt politician in the country.
People unfamiliar with Kurdistan who read such vitriol against the region’s leaders could be forgiven for fearing to even visit the area. They might fear arrest like government critics (including foreigners) in Turkey, or wonder if the police will shake them down for bribes, or if the streets are safe and society functional.
But as Huff’s recent Forbes article explains, expats and investments have now returned to Kurdistan despite the war on ISIS and anything else its critics can conjure up: “Foreigners once skeptical of security in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) now appreciate a safety record superior to Europe and the United States. Compare Erbil’s single incident two years ago with the tragic events occurring in western capitals and cultural centers like Paris, Berlin, and London.”
Stocks for companies with operations in Kurdistan are going back up, and “In the southern city of Kirkuk –– which Kurdish forces took over from Iraq in 2014 –– foreign investors have poured more than $1 billion in the last year alone. The KRG now exports 600,000 barrels of oil per day, with up to a million per day on the horizon thanks to existing and pending deals with large multinational oil companies.
The KRG’s budget deficit has thus shrunk 99%, “from $4 billion in 2013 to just $63 million in 2016.” Together with efforts to boost agriculture (Kurdistan is nearly self-sufficient for food now), manufacturing and the private sector in general, the future prospects of the region look better than that of many states.
Naturally, many problems also remain. Public sector employees are still much too large a proportion of the workforce, and most of those people still wait on salaries that remain several months in arrears. Others are leaving the region for jobs and better living conditions abroad.
Various KRG transparency initiatives (such as a biometric identification system for those receiving public salaries or benefits) and political reforms have yet to bring the region to Western standards, and party-family dynasties dominate Kurdistan’s political scene to a much greater extent than in most countries outsides the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
The KRG nonetheless appears to be not only weathering, but emerging stronger from the perfect storm of crises that hit Kurdistan in 2014 (ISIS, the budget freeze from Baghdad, collapsing international oil prices and the waves of refugees fleeing the rest of Iraq and Syria). Even before 2014, the KRG’s detractors should ask themselves how such corrupt and nefarious leaders managed to provide much more to their people than the Baghdad did, and more than most developing countries, in so short a time.
As Huff notes, “In the decade from 2003 to 2013 — the end of Saddam Hussein’s reign to the arrival of ISIS — the number of schools boomed from 3,200 to 6,000, with the literacy rate jumping from 53% to 84%. Hospitals multiplied from 22 to 125. Nearly 11,000 miles of roads were paved. Over 50,000 low-income housing units were completed, and the poverty rates in Kurdish provinces remain the lowest in Iraq.”
For a region that was traditionally the poorest and least developed in Iraq, such accomplishments still provide plenty of reason to see the glass as half full – now and tomorrow.
David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since 2010. He holds the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and is the author of numerous publications on the Kurds and the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.