A Week in Kurdistan, Iraq

Thursday August 13, 2009

 

How many Christians can claim to be able to converse with God in His native language?

Kawa, my driver in Erbil, is one of them.

He speaks Chaldean, a derivative of Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus.

 

He also brings his children up in that language, which means they have to learn four languages.

Kawa’s children speak Chaldean, Kurdish, Arabic and English.

Not bad, especially considering that each of these languages have different alphabets.

 

Maybe only people who have reached my age appreciate the skill of talking to God in His mother tongue.

One never knows, one day it may come in handy.

However, the larger point here is that Kurds take education seriously.

With the relative peace and freedom enjoyed for nearly two decades, Kurds have started to rebuild a normal society.

This means that the young generations have the opportunity to get proper teaching, a prerequisite for modernization.

 

And modernization is coming to Iraqi Kurdistan.

The process is slow for now, but it is due to accelerate similarly to what has happened in any emerging country that embraced capitalism.

For now, for example, credit cards and ATM’s are still foreign to the Kurds living in Iraq.

But when I went to visit a private bank in Sulaymaniyah, two dozen people were eagerly watching a demonstration of how to use an ATM, which the bank was about to install all over the city.

 

Employees at the branch were fluent in English and also very efficient.

The majority were women. None was wearing a scarf, let alone a veil.

 

This simple experience of having money wired from the US through Western Union taught me a couple of things about what is in the making.

Private banks are filling the gaps left by overstaffed state-owned banks that lend very sparingly to small businesses.

Women, who were traditionally confined to domestic jobs, are allowed to have a career and become financially independent.

 

Education is vital for many reasons.

Not least of them is combating religious extremism.

Unlike what we read about the rest of Iraq, Kurdistan strikes me to be as being a relatively tolerant place and thus rather peaceful.

The younger generations are showing much less religious fervor than their parents.

Kurds, for example, do not seem to care much about which branch of Muslim they belong to.

I actually heard them joke about the fact that they had never heard of Sunni and Shiite divisions before the latest war of liberation.

Yes, they call it the war of liberation.

The Muslim majority also lives in harmony with the numerous minorities that are remnants of a very long and complex history.

Chaldeans, Assyrians, Armenians, Turkmen, followers of Zoroaster, etc. have been part of the community for so long.

Even though this harmony may be encouraged by the many military forces, the overall feel is one of peace and safety.

 

I just wished they would abandon the annoying habit of celebrating elections and weddings with Kalashnikovs.

It can get out of hand sometimes.

On my first night in Erbil, I had dinner outside, when such a celebration erupted next to our tables.

My friend Aree got me to the hotel safely, but his car’s hood eventually got hit by a bullet dropping from the sky.

Seventeen people got injured and one died that night.

Just another party.

I must say it is a good thing that binge drinking is not part of their culture.

 

The Peshmerga soldiers (literally “Beyond Death”) are omnipresent.

After having fought Saddam Hussein for many years, they are now acting mostly as a police force.

This was my first trip to the region and I did not know what to expect.

Such an army can easily use its power to terrorize and bribe the population.

I saw none of that behavior.

On the contrary, the Peshmerga are professional and surprisingly friendly.

They are a reassuring presence.

 

With this relative peace and freedom, Iraqi Kurdistan is starting to rebuild its economy.

So far, mostly through infrastructure projects.

New roads are being constructed.

Office buildings and malls are mushrooming.

But, besides the ubiquitous bazaars and many shopkeepers, I did not see much evidence of entrepreneurship yet.

Actually, most Kurds take their cue from the French and dream of jobs in government agencies.

 

There are some exceptions, of course.

One story about a Kurdish entrepreneur is very popular over there.

It is the story of a businessman who had thousands of traditional Kurdish clothes made in China.

He thus sent a sample to be copied with – unnoticed by him – a small hole on the inside of the left trouser.

The Chinese manufacturer duly produced thousands of perfect copies, including a hole at the exact same spot.

 

For some incomprehensible reason, most goods are manufactured in China nowadays.

I am told it is cheaper to produce in China and I was quite disappointed to hear that my authentic belts bought at the bazaar were most likely manufactured in China.

 

Budding entrepreneurs will eventually get it right.

It is likely they will be helped by the large Kurdish Diaspora returning home with expertise and money.

We have seen this in Poland before.

 

Opportunities abound.

One is struck by the huge need for agricultural development, for example.

Kurdistan is still importing most of its fruits and vegetables, which does not make sense considering the vast agricultural lands.

I saw mountains between Sulaymaniyah and Iran that are covered with almond trees, grape vines, plum trees, etc.

I am sure this land used to be properly exploited in the past.

Today, however, it is a wasteland.

This is a sector of the economy that has still not recovered from Saddam’s constant bombing of the region.

A smart agriculture policy could easily turn this situation around.

Land is cheap and if someone is interested in starting the first Kurdish wine business, just contact me.

My friend Aree is interested.

 

Agriculture and manufacturing could easily take off.

All the ingredients are there for this to happen.

I believe that the Kurds are just a bit slow to wake up to the unprecedented opportunity.

How can one not forgive them after all these centuries of war.

 

Services too could be a source of growth down the road.

After all, these are people who take hospitality very seriously.

Aree, whom I had contacted through a friend of a friend before leaving New York, did not hesitate to drive three hours to welcome me in Erbil.

Later in the week, he then bent over backwards to make my stay in Sulaymaniyah extremely pleasant and informative.

But, while I was impressed by the efficiency at the private bank, my experiences were not always so positive.

At my hotel or in some restaurants I often had to wait a long time to get a beer or a bottle of water.

 

Not that they are not trying.

The personnel of my hotel really tried hard to help me.

When I left my jacket in the lobby one night, they insisted on bringing it to my room.

The problem was that it was 2:30 am and I was fast asleep.

They insisted.

After I told them on the phone to leave me alone, they just showed up in my room.

With all the kidnappings next door, seeing two men walking into my room in the middle of the night got my adrenaline running.

But before I was able to show them my best karate moves, they had already hung my jacket in the closet and left.

 

Let me address a major scourge in emerging markets: corruption.

This is always a problem in emerging markets.

Kurdistan is no exception.

People in power in less developed countries find it easier than our politicians to take advantage of the system.

The best way to combat those encroached privileges has always been democracy, which allows for periodic change in personnel.

China does not have that luxury, which is why I believe it will come to haunt them.

By contrast, democracy is starting to show its beneficial effects on Kurdish society.

Just before I got there, the province of Sulaymaniyah gave a new political party, appropriately called Change, a resounding electoral victory.

Change, which had been in existence for only a few months, received more than 50% of the votes in Sulaymaniyah.

They won on a refreshingly simple platform: ending corruption.

Unfortunately their popularity did not spill over to the other two provinces and the old coalition will keep the majority in parliament.

But their point has been made.

The traditional PUK and PDK have been put on notice.

 

Again, government corruption is what one expects in emerging markets.

But I have found the people in general to be very reliable and definitely not out to take advantage of me.

When I unknowingly paid four times the price for a  bottle of water, I was given back my change.

When I left my jacket in the lobby of my hotel, it was returned with my wallet still full of dinars and dollars.

A young taxi driver once even refused to be paid for the ride.

The only time I was a bit suspicious is when a taxi driver asked me to pay an extra 2,000 dinars for “cold air”.

 

All this I found very encouraging.

But Iraqi Kurdistan is about much more.

They are sitting on a sea of oil and plenty other minerals.

 

Iraq’s oil reserves are second only to Saudi Arabia.

And it is cheap.

Extracting oil around Kirkuk, for example, costs one tenth of what companies pay in the US.

And believe me, no environmentalist will complain about the negative effects on nature.

The place looks like the moon.

 

Right now, Iraq’s neglected infrastructure allows for the production of a mere 2 million barrels a day.

The plan is to increase this number to 6 million by 2014.

Eventually, the country should be able to produce as much as the Saudis, i.e. 10 million barrels a day.

And this for many decades.

The huge reserves are still virtually untapped.

 

Now, the rest of the country is not as stable as Kurdistan and Iraqis are still squabbling over Kirkuk.

But Kurds are realists. They know they have to share the revenues of their oil production.

Actually, the day after my trip Prime Minister Maliki and Barzani, the President of Kurdistan, had an encouraging meeting in Sulaymaniyah where they reportedly came closer to a modis vivendi.

The chances for an agreement seem very high.

The Iraqi government has its hands full with the insurgents and the Kurds do not want another armed conflict.

 

Early investors sense the huge potential rewards.

On the plane leaving Erbil I sat next to an Iraqi dentist whose practice is in Denmark.

He was from Baghdad and returns often.

He told me he is investing in banks that have a large portfolio of real estate in downtown Baghdad.

He is convinced the country is on the verge of an oil-driven economic boom.

Once again, I heard an Iraqi refering to Dubai as an example of things to come.

 

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Comments

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