Things are far more different over here than I’m sure most of you would expect. There are the clear and obvious distinctions of culture and every day environment, but of greater note is the difference in perception. What is widely reported and assumed to be true for much of this region is not true in Erbil and most of Kurdistan. I mean that in the most geopolitical way you could imagine. I had to assuage many people’s fears before I departed and in some instances simply asked people to trust that I was making an educated and informed decision. Media outlets love to lead us astray of the truth. My first two weeks here have helped cement this belief. Two weeks might ultimately be only a fraction of the amount of time I spend here, and I’m well aware of the extraordinary potential for drastic positive (or equally possible negative) change in this region but I have, do, and will continue to feel very safe and welcome. Locals have wasted no time at all letting me know that I am welcome and safe, and that I should enjoy my front seat view of Erbil’s bloom.
Erbil has been dubbed “The new Dubai” in regards to its burgeoning potential. The city and in extension much of Kurdistan sits atop some of the largest untapped oil reserves in the world. It is believed in many petroleum geology circles to be of greater potential volume than much of the reserves that sit below Saudi Arabia. It is a somewhat speculative career forecasting and predicting the depth of oil reserves, but the confidence that many within the business have of Kurdistan’s future is promising. The possibility of future wealth in the city is enormous and palpable, as some of it has already trickled down to the masses improving the standard of living drastically in only ten years time. Foreign automobiles crowd the streets. The skies are often varying waves of pastel colors and the musk of natural gas sits heavily in the air, as if an active derrick is no more than ten yards away at any time or point in the city.
Since Saddam Hussein lost his power and presence in this far northeastern corner of Iraq change and growth have been unmitigated and unregulated. Ten years of massive sprawl and development. This is why Erbil is the new Dubai; after many years suffering through a caged identity and a harsh regime, the city of Erbil has emerged on the regional map as a locale of prosperity and power, the largest Kurdish city in the world, and a city of potentially massive growth on the world scale if progress is not hindered by nearby influences and ideologies.
Erbil, and by extension Kurdistan’s influence and importance in the region has been growing steadily since about 2004. An ally of American interests due to the autonomy that was gained after the fall of Hussein, much of the city’s interests have been closely tied to an American agenda and our North American needs (oil). Erbil was one of the biggest reasons President Obama decided to take a more forceful and proactive approach in the conflicts with ISIS, making sure that the city would not come under any possible harm. He felt, and probably rightly so, that the city had too much strategic and economic importance to be even slightly threatened.
I realize now that telling people I was going to Iraq was probably not the best way to go about my news. It would have been equally true to say that I was going to Kurdistan… maybe more true. The formal state of Kurdistan, Iraq, has gained almost complete autonomy and an independence referendum is in works right now. Though international boundaries and recognition dictate that Erbil and Kurdistan is part of Iraq the ties grow weaker by the day, exacerbated by both Kurdistan’s boom and Iraq’s destabilization. Erbil is a more important and powerful city than Baghdad, and President Masoud Barzani seems to be a political genius, carefully navigating several agendas and playing the game of democracy, which in his region of the world is often polluted with tyranny, dogmatic ideology and religious tension. If the ISIS situation is correctly handled, the future looks to be very bright for Kurdistan.
As a result I can confidently say to all who worry at home that I am in a very safe and exciting place, and I hope that my confidence in this area and my safety will remain assured.