Landing at the shiny new airport in Erbil, seat of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, I could not help but notice that the cleaning crews are not staffed with locals. The cleaners are from Southeast Asia, giving the impression that Iraqi Kurdistan is blessed with full employment and needs to import labor. Among the arriving passengers, however, were more than a dozen young Kurdish men who had been turned back from destinations—likely, in Europe—where they had gone in search of the same menial jobs that are now handed to migrant workers in their country.
The desire to emigrate is deeply embedded in the Iraqi Kurdish experience. In the 1970s, Kurds fled to Europe after the failed uprising of Mustafa Barzani. During the Iran-Iraq war, many young men and their families left Iraq to escape mandatory military service, and later, to escape Saddam Hussein’s Anfal campaign that destroyed hundreds of towns and villages. After the US declared a no-fly zone over much of Iraqi Kurdistan in 1991, protecting most Kurds from the Iraqi military, people emigrated mainly for economic reasons, seeking relief from the misery of the double sanctions on the north, one set imposed by the UN and the other by Saddam.
The young men of today were not yet born in the 1980s, and they have only hazy memories of the next decade’s deprivation. They leave because they aspire to the comfortable lifestyle that the KRG has so far failed to deliver.
On a warm summer night in Suleimaniya, a driver, no more than 20 years old, picked me up for an evening out. Dressed in jeans, his hair immaculately gelled, he would have fit in well in any cosmopolitan city. I ask him what he does with his leisure time. “Well, we gather in the park, and complain about the government—our Kurdish government.”
“I go to school and I work, so I am better off than most of my friends, but every now and then a guy cuts you off while driving and you cannot tell him anything because he is in a Monica”—the slang term for the new Toyota Land Cruiser, favored by persons of influence—“and a son of an official. I am not comfortable here, there is little for me to look forward to.”
He continues: “The government does not provide us with anything. For instance, young people today need a house and a car to be able to get married, a nice salary to support their family. We cannot get any of that.” Is there a country that dispenses these benefits? “Yes, there is—Sweden!” The joke in Kurdistan is that the Swedish government sends emissaries to make sure its citizens are protected.
Discontent is widespread and the reason for it is simple: a widening gap between haves and have-nots, exacerbated by wrong-headed policies laced with endemic corruption and neglect of essential services. On a separate trip to Suleimaniya, I arrived in the middle of one the worst cold snaps in 30 years. Water pipes had burst all over the city and the usual three hours of electricity had dwindled to nothing. One frigid evening, a policeman stopped my car at a major intersection. Some 50 university students, all women dressed in their warmest clothes, stood hand in hand in the crosswalk blocking the street. The young women were protesting the lack of electricity and water in the dormitories, the policeman said.
Since the mid-1990s, the twin Kurdish parties have had the latitude to develop the region, but few Kurds believe development is the top priority. By way of contrast to the intermittent power and water supply, many point to the KRG’s alacrity in signing oil exploration contracts and ask where that money is going.
Most managers of today’s Kurdistan are old peshmerga fighters descended from the mountains or returned from European refuge. Such backgrounds prompt remarks that a degree in engineering earned in the 1970s and experience in guerrilla warfare does not prepare a man to run a ministry. Many of the returnees from Europe are resented as arrogant, even colonialist bureaucrats who acquired no more abroad than foreign language ability and new passports.
Neither the KRG nor the US has done anything to curb the corruption, both petty and grand, that became established during the sanctions decade, and the practice is now rampant and countrywide. Everyone expects it in all transactions. Any prospective business partner will ask who is backing the proposed deal, as a way of divining what the size of that person’s cut will be. If the backer is dubbed a “whale,” that means he is a very influential person whose share will be large indeed. When asked about the long-term effects of all the corruption, people throw their hands up in the air.
To date Kurdish leaders have opted to fight to create a Kurdistan in Iraq, in the process instilling unrealistic Kurdish nationalist aspirations in the population and alienating the younger generation further from Arab Iraqis. In this goal, the leadership has ultimately not been discouraged by the US; although Washington repeatedly professes support for a united Iraq, it had a hand in devising the new oil law, which gives the Kurdish region autonomous control over its oil reserves. This innovation threatens to foster dependency among the population on handouts from the state, as in other oil-rich countries. The other looming threat, of course, is that the US will “sell” the Kurds as it has done twice before in recent history, permitting neighboring Turkey to intervene and Arab Iraq to settle scores. Aware of these possibilities, Iraqi Kurds have not forgotten the famous saying that their “best friends are the mountains.”
Within both parties, however, there is a rising generation that is better educated and less burdened by the baggage of years of war. These leaders could start a virtuous cycle of sustainable economic progress that would attract qualified persons from the rest of the country or from abroad. In the three provinces of Erbil, Suleimaniya and Dohuk, there is still a chance to create a new Iraq in Kurdistan.