Future Threats and Dangers Facing Iraqi Kurdistan Region in Today’s Globalised World

Kurdishaspect.com -  By Omar Sheikhmous

The Iraqi Kurdistan Region as a political entity has a very recent and turbulent history. It was first established as a US and Allied protective “no-fly zone”, north of the 36th parallel, in 1991 after the First Gulf War and the mass exodus of Kurdish refugees to Turkey and Iran, in the aftermath of the uprising in Kurdistan in March 1991. The region was consolidated in the first “fair and free” democratic elections in May 1992 by further including areas in Sulaimania Province and some regions of Kirkuk, south of the 36th parallel. This came about in reaction to the decision by Saddam Hussein’s regime to withdraw its administration and services from those areas.

A united Kurdish coalition government was formed in July 1992 between the two main political movements in the region, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and some minor political organisations, e.g. the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan, the Toilers Party of Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Branch of the Iraqi Communist Party, the “Social Democratic” Party of Kurdistan and the Assyrian Democratic Movement. This unity was shattered in 1994 by internecine fighting between KDP and PUK that practically led to the establishment of two parallel Kurdistan Regional Governments (KRG). One led by PUK and its allies and one by KDP and its allies. The fighting continued intermittently until 1998 when it was finally stopped after many rounds of mediation by Kurdish forces, Iraqi opposition groups, France, Britain, and the United States. The ceasefire, however, did not lead to a reunited KRG until the beginning of 2006. Three ministeries, namely Finance, Internal and Pesh Merga Affairs are still not integrated.

From 1991 until 2003 the areas ruled by KRG were subjected to dual sanctions. UN Sanctions that were imposed by the Security Council on the whole of Iraq as a result of its occupation of Kuwait in August 1990 and its aftermath, and sanctions by Saddam Hussein’s regime as revenge and punishment for Kurdish opposition to his regime and their support to allied efforts in Iraq. Furthermore, the neighbouring states of Turkey, Iran and Syria practiced containment and coordinated destabilising efforts in the Kurdish region for fear of contagion from Iraqi Kurdistan on their respective Kurdish populations. (1) Despite many efforts to lift sanctions by the UN on the Kurdish region, that was not under the control of Saddam Hussein’s Government, they were not removed. (2)

These conditions created a very harsh and suffocating environment for KRG to rule and develop a region that was already shattered by many years of civil war, genocidal campaigns, mass deportations, war with the Iraqi Government over a long period of time (practically and intermittently between 1961- 2003), eight years of war between Iran and Iraq (1980-1988), two Gulf Wars (in 1991 and 2003) and near total destruction of the countryside and infrastructure. (3) The KRG was further confronted with lack of sufficient resources, inexperience in running a country, incompetence, corruption, nepotism, a clientele political mentality nurtured by Saddam’s regime, local and sectaristic loyalties rather than national ones and an undemocratic political culture that was dominant among the different Kurdish organisations and movements.

Despite all these shortcomings and imperfections, the Kurdish Regional Government’s record in Iraqi Kurdistan can be considered a relative success that can be improved substantially, especially when compared with other areas of Iraq and many regions in the Greater Middle East Area. The Iraqi Kurdistan Region has a very good potential for becoming one of the fast growing economies of the World and an important financial centre as well as a base for localisation of international industries and their subsidiaries.

This success story, however, faces a number of internal and external threats and dangers that can become extremely serious for KRG’s future development unless planned for, dealt with and remedied. Among them, the following factors and aspects can be pointed out:

1- Considering the developing worldwide food crisis as far as availability and prices are considered, it is very surprising to note that KRG is neglecting the agricultural sector in the Kurdistan region and relies heavily on imported food products from unfriendly neighbouring countries and from international markets. This reliance can strangle the Kurdistan region at the time of a crisis with any of the neighbouring countries that most probably will stop the flow of necessary food products to the region. Most countries of the world, for strategic reasons, subsidize and support their agricultural sector in order to be able to feed their people in time of war and crises, although at times it is not economically sound. Historically, the plains of Arbil, Sharazoor, Koye and Kirkuk used to be considered the breadbasket of the whole of Iraq. It is, therefore, extremely dangerous for KRG to let this situation continue instead of drawing plans for developing the agricultural sector, support and give incentives to peasants to rebuild their villages and farms, build a viable food production capacity and formulate a good land distribution and land reform policy.

2- There are different estimates that between 50% - 70% of KRG’s budget goes to pay government salaries, which by itself amounts to around 70% of total economic activity in the region.(4) No country in the world can sustain such an economic policy in the long  run, not even the affluent small oil rich countries like Libya, Kuwait and the Gulf states. These funds are also provided on a monthly basis by the central government in Baghdad according to a sharing agreement of 83% to 17% for Kurdistan. (5) Unless this situation is remedied the KRG will face bankruptcy in few years time or the Federal Government can strangle the Kurdistan region by refusing or delaying payments to the region. The rest 30% of economic activity is also either consumtion, construction or services that cannot sustain a population of nearly 4 million for a long period of time. (6) The KRG will be forced to draw economic plans for income generating businesses, encourage foreign and local investments in infrastructure and a diversified economic base for local production. Otherwise, it will end up in a much deeper crises than the stagnating systems of the old Soviet Union and Eastern Europe that eventually collapsed. The new Investment Law is a good step in the right direction, but more definite terms and conditions with solid guarantees will have to be provided for local and foreign investors in the region in order to achieve a self reliant economy.

3- The culture of work in the Kurdistan region will have to be totally overhauled through the educational system and media campaigns. The Kurdistan region cannot afford a six-hour workday (which is four effective work hours) for five days per week. The work ethics will also have to be changed. The endemic culture of handouts and clientele practices by the state, in similarity with many Middle Eastern and old East European states, will lead to catastrophic results. KRG will have to develop a comprehensive plan of resocialisation of its citizens that they not only have rights but they have duties towards society and the state as well. Most of the countries that are experiencing fast economic growth and economic development have a six-day work week and a ten-hour workday.

4- The Iraqi Kurdistan Region has suffered a disasterous outflow of people as refugees and migrants since the 1970’s. It is estimated that around half a million people from the region live abroad and very few of them plan or intend to return. (7) The majority are young, well educated or have good technical and vocational skills. In result, it constitutes a very costly brain drain for the region and leads it to reliance on foreign labour at a time that the population of the region has an unemployment rate that approaches 60% or are engaged in non-productive sectors. (8) Surprisingly, the outflow of young people is still going on at a high rate. Many of these Kurdish migrants are voting with their feet by choosing the exit option because they are alienated or dissatisfied with the political system in the region or cannot achieve their ambitions and dreams within the social and economic conditions that dominate in the region, because of lack of opportunities, lack of contacts (Wasita) or corruption and nepotism. (9) KRG will have to work very hard at improving conditions in the region in order to be able to attract its own citizens back and also attract foreign investors to the region for creating better economic conditions for its population. The educational system will also need to be improved and modernised to provide better educational possibilities to the youth and children of Kurdistan in engineering and information technology as well as foreign languages and future industries and technologies. The cornerstones of sound development in most societies that aspire towards a brighter future for their coming generations. (10)

5- During the 1990’s, the economy of Iraqi Kurdistan Region was considered to be one of the freest markets of the World because of lack of controls, regulations and intervention by the government. The government was simply too recent and too weak to intervene in the market. That situation had its advantages and disadvantages. Today, the opposite is true for economic activity in Iraqi Kurdistan. There are too many controls and interventions by governmental and party institutions. The state, members of the political elite and the two main parties are partners in most of the economic activities of the region. A new form of corporativism along the lines of Peron’s Argentina and Mussolini’s Italy is taking shape in the region. Instead of a regulated free market, a kind of a command economy of the eastern European model is applied. If not reformed, these practices will lead to stagnation and economic collapse in the future. (11)

6- The Kurdish people in general and the people of Iraqi Kurdistan in particular, after many decades of oppression and victimisation, managed to gain the good-will of international public opinion, especially in the Western World, because of this history and the democratic and secular outlook of the Kurdish national movements. Recent developments in the Kurdistan Region, however, like violations of human rights and democratic freedoms, violence against women and honour killings, limitations on press freedoms and secret detention centres by the parties have caused a threat to that good-will that was so hardly won. (12) The erosion of that good-will might seriously endanger the future of the Kurdistan Region because it might cause the withdrawal of international support and solidarity in a very dangerous neighbourhood in the Middle East. (13)

7- The Kurdish nationalist movement in Iraq, in similarity with many other secular nationalist movements of the World, may face a tide of increasing political Islamist movements in Kurdistan, if it fails to provide satisfactory solutions to the economic, political and social needs of its people. If necessary reforms are not carried out like fighting corruption, nepotism and cronyism as well as adopting a more transparet form of governance, it might lead to some violent forms of expression of dissatisfaction and protest by the populace and an end to the dawning relative forms of democracy that exist in the region now. (14)

8- The Iraqi Kurdistan Region although dominantly populated by ethnic Kurds, it is characterised by a certain degree of multi-culturalism and ethnicity: Apart from the Kurds there are Arabs, Turkomans, Assyro-Chaldeans and Armenians among others; by multi- lingualism: there are speakers of Arabic, Turkish (Turkmani), Assyrian, Syriac, Armenian and within the Kurdish speaking group there are Sorani, Kurmanji (Badinani),  Hewrami and Feyli speakers; by multi-religious groupings: There are Moslems (both Sunni, Shia, and Ahle-Haqq – People of the Truth), Christians (Nestorians, Catholic -Chaldeans, Orthodox-Syriacs and Armenian Church follower, and recently a small group of Protestant converts can be added to them), Yezidis, and some syncretistic sects like the Shabaks and Kakeiis; and many social groups as well as Kurdish refugees and labour from Turkey, Iran and Syria. (15)
KRG is faced with a heavy task of maintaining peace and tranquility within and among these groupings by following a tolerant and open policy of mutual acceptance and co-existence. It cannot follow a unitarist policy of imposing a single identity, religion, language, Kurdish dialect or culture on its population, along the lines of the states the Kurds have lived in. Otherwise, it will face dissension and destructive internal strife instead of building a developing democratic welfare state.

9- Democratic competition between different political parties and movements is a healthy sign of the political process and a factor for strength in most societies. In Iraqi Kurdistan, however, The competition between the PUK and KDP has taken very destructive forms. Despite all the facade of unity and cooperation, a refined and many-faceted covert war continues to be waged by both sides against each other. This has resulted in both sides’ weakened position vis-a-vis the neighbouring states and many other political actors in Iraq and the region. Both sides monopolisation of power in their respective regions of influence further diminishes possibilities for genuine democratic freedom of action for their minor partners. In order to safeguard a genuine path towards a more sound democratic order in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, both major parties and movements will have to reform their approach to politics and power and move towards a more open and pluralist form of governance that would guarantee their region’s survival. (16)

10- Iraqi Kurdistan Region is a land-locked area with no access to international waterways. Its air and landways go through neighbouring countries that are not specifically friendly towards it. The region’s very survival depends on these lanes and the financial support from the federal government in Baghdad. Living in such geopolitical and economic conditions necessitates a more realistic approach to politics. The political leaderships in Iraqi Kurdistan will have to work hard in moderating their people’s inflated and maximalist demands for independence and seperation from Iraq despite all the difficulties and frustrations that they experience in achieving their aspirations to statehood. They should make it clear to their people that following such a path, would most probably, lead to war with the neighbouring countries and the central government in Iraq. Such a mini state will be encircled, contained and crushed by military and economic means. Furthermore, that such a step would not gain international recognition and support. In result, it might lead to the destruction of the mini federal region that they already have. The populist temptations of some political leaders will have to be curtailed .(17)

11- Finally, Iraqi Kurdistan Region now feels safe and protected because of deployment of US and Allied forces in Iraq. This situation will not last forever. Already plans are drawn for the withdrawal of these troops from Iraq in a few years time. There is no guarantee that a very strong and sound democratic and federal system of government will have been established in Iraq by then. There will always be dangers of the political system in Iraq falling back to its old habits of military rule and non-democratic forms of governance by nationalist or political Islamist groups. The future of the people of Iraqi Kurdistan is tied to the region and it would be more advisable for them to learn to live with the devils that they know rather than the devils that they do not know!!!!!!

P.S.: This Paper was prepared for: The Conference: “Kurdistan in a Dynamic (Ever Changing) World- An Academic and a Political Dialogue” , Arbil – Iraqi Kurdistan – 16-18 October, 2008. But the Conference was cancelled.


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April 18, 2009
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Sheikhmous, Omar: Born in 1942 in Amouda in the Kurdish areas of Syria (Aldjazira); Studied Political Science and International Relations at the Universities of London and Stockholm. Lecturer and researcher in political science at Stockholm University between 1973-2001. Published works on the Kurds, human rights, migration and Islam. Latest research projects were on social adaptation and popular religiosity among Moslem immigrants in Sweden, A comparative study of Islamic Fundamentalism and Genocidal Campaigns Against the Kurds in Iraq and Turkey. Member of the Board of the University of HTU in Sweden. Member of Swedish PEN and part of a dialogue group with the Minister of Immigration on migration and integration issues and the Foreign Ministry of Sweden on ”Euro-Islam”. One of the Founders of PUK and a member of its Leadership Committee and Political Bureau between 1975-1986. Senior Editor and later Chief of the Kurdish Service of Voice of America  in Washington, D.C. between 2001-2007. Now, retired independent analyst of Kurdish and Middle Eastern Affairs.