Closer Cooperation Will Yield Big Results for Iraq and Turkey

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Turkey’s insatiable demand for energy has recently seen it cast its eyes towards the Caspian region and Iraq to meet its needs. According to the International Energy Agency reports, Turkey’s spending on energy imports reached $60 billion last year. That figure is expected to further increase this year.

Attending the third Caspian Forum in Istanbul last week, I witnessed the attempts to create a southern European or northern Middle East energy union to address those needs.

The forum, like so many other recent oil and gas events, focused on how energy security affects global supply and demand. It also put the spotlight on the dialogue between Ankara, Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan over the building of an oil pipeline to Turkey from the Kurdistan corridor. If this pipeline goes ahead without a legal consensus between all parties, it could have long-lasting repercussions for regional security.

Iraq recognises the cross-border and historic connections between itself and Turkey, but Ankara must not overstep this relationship or become embroiled in the continuing debate over the Iraqi constitution. That is a matter of governance that can only be resolved by the Iraqi people.

Last September at the second Caspian Forum in New York, Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s foreign minister, mentioned in his speech that Turkey’s “southern corridor is connecting several regions, several countries around the same objective of getting reliable energy but at the same time getting peace”. This statement was supported by Taner Yildiz, Turkey’s energy minister, who is attempting to achieve trilateral agreement between Ankara, Baghdad, and Erbil to secure economic prosperity and harmony for all.

Last year, Mr Yildiz failed to make it to Erbil for the Iraqi Kurdistan oil and gas conference when his flight was refused entry to Iraqi airspace. This year, however, he did get to Erbil, having earlier flown to Baghdad, where he met with Hussain Al Shehristani, Iraq’s deputy prime minister, to discuss the initiative proposed by Turkey. Iraq has many problems that could threaten this process. It has just come out of half a century of tyranny and dictatorships. Added to this, it is surrounded by six nations, each with a different agenda and conflicting foreign policy towards it. Despite this, Iraq in 2013 is a far better and stronger place than it was in 2003 and I am hopeful that the future will shock the pessimists who look for division rather than unity in my country.

Federalism in Iraq is a question that’s yet to be understood by all the contesting factions. The Kurds see through a “confederal lens” because they enjoyed 12 years of autonomy before 2003. The Arab majority view it through the notion of “centralism” because their mindset is still governed by the shadow of the past.

Regime change is rarely only about removing dictators, and also represents a nation’s journey towards reform. This requires time and may take generations to materialise.

People today are more preoccupied by media and social networks, and less interested in history and the realities of the past. Yet, history tells us it took the Europeans half a millennium to escape the Dark Ages; and the US had to go through many years of trial and error before achieving its much acclaimed and mighty democracy. As for the new Turkey, today’s prosperity was forged by a century of struggle after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. I believe that the journey to success will be much faster than this in Iraq – we did it 5,000 years ago, and we will do it again.

The key to prosperity centres on the future management of Iraq’s oil and gas resources and the equitable distribution of revenues between federal participants. It also relies on an understanding that petroleum contracts are long-term commitments that will outlive short-term political appointments.

Iraq can be the catalyst for regional prosperity. It offers an investment portfolio valued at more than $1.3 trillion, including $650bn in the energy sector alone. According to the Iraq National Energy Strategy, by 2020, daily production could reach nine million barrel of oil and over seven billion cubic feet of gas.

Turkey could be the single biggest beneficiary from Iraq’s prosperity and unity. It is the gateway to Europe and is a natural partner for Iraq in its reconstruction.

Iraq and Turkey should think of forming a state-to-state economic union and developing energy partnerships to sustain peace and prosperity, instead of politicising energy resources in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The “cradle of civilisation” needs cooperative neighbours. Ultimately, such cooperation will be rewarding for all interested parties.