Stability in Iraqi Kurdistan: Reality or Mirage?

Executive Summary

Despite the mixed report card on Iraqi progress, one consistent theme is that Iraqi Kurdistan has been a quiet success story. Kurdistan is a snowy oasis, free from the sectarian strife that has marred the rest of the country. Its leadership is unified after decades of disarray, and former rebels now hold the highest government posts. Iraq’s Kurds finally have the respect they crave after having been relegated to the status of the forgotten stepchildren of the Middle East. They have forged strategic alliances with powerful Shi’i groups in Iraq, won the trust and support of the United States, and co-opted other, smaller political groups beholden to their patronage. In the process, they have become the kingmakers of Iraqi politics—no important appointment has been made without their approval. And they have negotiated and legalized an autonomous Kurdistan in the heart of a region that has been brutally opposed to this very outcome.

The Kurds also made it a key priority to encourage foreign investment in their region by rolling out an extensive public relations campaign promoting “Kurdistan: The Other Iraq.” Calling their investment law “the friendliest in the region,” they developed a website, filmed public service advertisements that thanked Americans for their sacrifice in liberating Iraq’s Kurds, and invited international businesses to set up shop in Kurdistan as a gateway to the rest of the Iraqi economy. They even promoted local tourism by inviting prominent journalists to spend time in the Kurdish region to pen articles like, “Tourists and investors to Iraq? Why not, say Kurds.”1 Nechervan Barzani, prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), could often be heard musing that Kurdistan would become the next Dubai. Actively pursuing this goal, Barzani made numerous visits to the emirates, signed deals with Dubai’s Dana Gas, and instituted direct flights between Irbil and the UAE.2

But the reality is much more complex. To be sure, the KRG has made significant gains and is keen to publicize them. But underneath the veneer of success lie simmering issues that often fall below Washington’s radar. Kurdistan faces many challenges that could undermine the gains the Kurds have made thus far, and which could jeopardize U.S. goals in Iraq and the broader region.

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Saban Center Working Papers are meant to stimulate debate and discussion on difficult policy questions. Qubad Talabany, Representative to the U.S. of the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq, responds to Stability in Iraqi Kurdistan: Reality or Mirage?