The liberation of Iraq in 2003 brought with it economic opportunities that the people of Iraq had never before imagined. In Kurdistan, we seized upon this chance to grow our society in the ways we had long dreamed — in the first 10 years annual per capita GDP grew from around $500 to $7,000. Although the past few years have tested our resiliency, Kurdistan remains a safe investment environment focused on diversification and reforming for better governance.
In 2006, Kurdistan’s Parliament passed the Investment Law, setting out highly favorable conditions and protections for international investors. Already many international companies had made substantial investments in Kurdistan, and we recognized the steady flow of capital as essential to growing our infrastructure and giving to our people the society that they deserve. A decade later, around 3,000 foreign companies — Turkish, Iranian, Emirati, European and American — are registered and operating in Kurdistan.
Our achievements in building Kurdistan’s economy have been significant. After years of neglect under Ba’athist rule and with the help of international energy companies, we grew an oil and gas industry from scratch, and today dozens of these companies work to extract Kurdistan’s natural resources. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) successfully negotiated revenue-sharing agreements that have kept Kurdistan afloat since former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki cut our share of the federal budget in February 2014. Eight years ago, Turkish troops were massed at our border and threatened by our prosperity. Through diplomatic engagement, today we have a strategic energy-sharing agreement and export 600,000 barrels of crude per day through a pipeline to the Turkish port of Ceyhan. A parallel natural gas pipeline is currently being constructed.
Saddam Hussein’s campaigns of genocide destroyed 4,500 villages and broke the backbone of agriculture in Kurdistan. Supported by international investment, we are working to rebuild and continue to increase production in a diversity of crops, including wheat, barley and vegetables. This has been possible through public and private investments in research, irrigation and harvesting equipment, storage, and more. International and local companies are steadily growing their operations to import seed, pesticides, herbicides and other inputs.
Kurdistan has long been a hub for regional tourism, particularly for Iraqis seeking a safe environment and respite from the heat of southern Iraq. In 2013, some 3 million tourists visited Kurdistan, and in the following year, Erbil was named the Middle East’s “2014 Arab Tourism Capital.”
With the war against ISIS and 1.8 million displaced Syrians and Iraqis sheltering in Kurdistan, tourism in recent years has taken a hit. However, we are already seeing a resurgence — our statistics show 1.6 million tourists had already visited Kurdistan by May 2017. They come to visit Kurdistan’s Jewish, Christian and Islamic religious sites; hike in snow-capped mountains; and explore bazaars in cities throughout the region. Despite sharing a border with ISIS for nearly three years, Kurdistan remains stable and secure for Western visitors.
It is difficult to be optimistic about a Middle East that has been ravaged by war for more than a decade. Still, the future of Kurdistan’s economy is bright. Our population is more educated than ever before, with nearly 40 universities and technical institutes, including two American-style universities and one that follows the British system. The Human Capacity Development Program, a $100 million program providing scholarships to Kurdistani students at leading universities around the world, has helped hundreds return to Kurdistan with graduate degrees.
In the past two years, the KRG has taken major steps to increase transparency in government, reduce waste and reform the economy. This includes a full audit of the oil industry by Deloitte and Ernst and Young, the implementation of a biometric registration system aimed at eliminating “ghost employees” in the government, the introduction of austerity measures to decrease government spending, and the reforming of the Finance Ministry with the help of regional and international financial experts.
On Sept. 25, there will be a referendum on independence to determine the will of the people to move toward full sovereignty. Our desire to be independent is deeply emotional — we have for generations struggled toward this dream. But independence is also a pragmatic solution to problems that have beleaguered Iraq since its inception. As an independent country, we will have access to international credit markets and control over monetary policy. In an independent Kurdistan, we will better be able to stabilize our economy in times of crisis. I firmly believe that an independent Kurdistan will be an even better place for international investors.
• Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman is the Kurdistan Regional Government Representative to the United States.
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