Construction is booming in Irbil, but corruption poses threat to prosperity
Rebuwar Baktyiar Jamil doesn't know where or when he was born, except that it was somewhere in the Kurdish mountains in 1991 before his mother fled Iraq. His father remained to fight against Saddam Hussein. A thick south London accent gives away his upbringing in Clapham Junction.
But last year, as his fellow students at Cass Business School applied for internships at Morgan Stanley or Goldman Sachs, Jamil booked a flight to Irbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Like so many in the Kurdish diaspora, he wanted to be a part of the closest thing Kurds have had to their own state in modern history. "As Kurds, we all have things to be proud of about our fathers and grandfathers who – as peshmerga [Kurdish militia] – gave everything for this country. I felt like it was my turn to do something. If I had stayed in London and had that kind of life, I felt it would be an insult to them," said Jamil, outside a cafe in Ankawa, Irbil.
Irbil's economic success since 2003 is well documented. Laudatory profiles of the city have pointed to the thousands of foreign and Kurdish-owned companies, a construction boom buoyed by the Kurdish Region of Iraq's (KRI) vast oil and natural gas reserves and, compared with the violence-ravaged south, relative stability.
But the true picture is more complex. Irbil may be on a path towards becoming a slick, modern business hub but there is a long way to go. Its residents are hit with daily power cuts and struggle with a shambolic infrastructure. As of February 2014, most state employees had not been paid for more than two months and a serious cash shortage caused ATMs to run dry of Iraqi dinars.
Meanwhile, Iraqi Kurdistan is hosting more than 300,000 refugees from Syria and southern Iraq, many of them in camps just outside the capital.
And not everyone in Irbil is benefiting from the city's status as "the next Dubai". In the expensive bars and restaurants of the Christian district of Ankawa, the smoky tearooms of the bazaar or humble homes on the outskirts of the sprawling city, conversation inevitably turns to corruption. Powerful clans dominate politics and business.
Former peshmerga soldiers gather every day in the central square opposite the city's bazaar. Hussein, 62, sitting in the midday sunshine outside a teahouse in the shadow of Erbil's historic citadel,laughed when asked about the popular comparison between Irbil and Dubai. "The ones in government, they are rich," he said, "but everyone else is poor. They're too greedy."
Originally from the eastern city of Sulaimaniya, Hussein spent seven years with the peshmerga fighting Saddam and is unhappy that, in his 60s, he still has to look for work. "The peshmerga are not getting what they are due. They are being overlooked – even after we fought so hard," he said.
Nur Adin, another retired fighter, was pleased about the construction work going on in Irbil. When he was a child, the recently redeveloped central square was a donkey market. But he believes that his 52 years in the city should entitle him to greater benefits from the government. "We have to be grateful to God that we are a rich country and that we can develop, [but] I was born in 1942 and I have no land from the government, while some others are given everything," he said.
Falah Mustafa, the head of the Kurdistan regional government's (KRG) department of foreign relations, stiffened when asked about the preferential treatment accorded to Kurds with political or family connections. "We are fighting against perception," he said, as a power cut plunged the room into darkness. "I do not exclude that there have been mistakes. Problems are there; abuses are there. But it is limited and it is wrong to say that the whole [Kurdish] region is like that. We are making progress and improving day to day."
And yet the divisions in Irbil are as much cultural as they are economic. Thousands of Kurds returned to the city with political and religious views forged in the west. But the war in Syria and daily bloodshed in the south have meant that extreme Islamism has also taken root in the Kurdish region.
The authorities were quick to point out that the September 2013 bombings in Irbil targeting the headquarters of the Asayish –the KRG security services – were the work of foreign Islamists rather than Kurds, but there have been cases of Iraqi Kurds heading to fight alongside extremist groups in Syria. Many in Irbil are concerned about what will happen when those radicalised young men come home.
In the citadel that towers over the city's bazaar and city centre – said to be one of the oldest continually inhabited sites in the world –, the 47-year-old imam of the Mullah Afandi mosque marched across the room holding the Qu'ran. Imam Mohammed pointed at a passage forbidding the use of force in the conversion of non-believers to Islam. "All the imams here in the cities of Iraqi Kurdistan – in Erbil, Sulaimaniya and Dohuk – tell their people that it is not jihad to go and fight in Syria," said Mohammed, whose family have been mullahs at the mosque for more than six generations.
He is concerned about young men being radicalised outside the cities in Iraqi Kurdistan, particularly in areas that are not as developed, such as the western city of Halabja and the disputed border city of Kirkuk. "In areas that have social and economic problems, in places that have security problems … Yes, I am worried about those areas," he said.
He also said there were concerns that extremists were crossing the border from the south into Iraqi Kurdistan.
Mustafa said the KRG was monitoring the problem, but stressed that only a small number of Kurds had been fighting alongside extremist groups in Syria. In more general terms, he cited the co-existence of Christians, Sunnis, Shias and secular Kurds in Irbil as an example of tolerance in Iraqi Kurdistan.
"These are certain individual cases: it is not a phenomenon," he said. "We have an open and secular [society]. There are people who go to mosque and there are people who do not. There are people who drink alcohol and people who do not. [Kurdish] society at large rejects terrorism and has not allowed it to be established in the region."
For returnees such as Jamil – who recently took on a job at the Irbil stock exchange, due to launch by the end of this year – it is that mix that presents one of the best opportunities for Kurds in their bloody history to build something lasting in Iraqi Kurdistan. "As a people we have always been divided. We've never been one. We can accommodate many different views and still work together – [because] nobody else cares about us. The Kurds are the only people who can help themselves."
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