Middle East

Why the Gulf matters to the Kurdish region of Iraq – analysis

Kurdistan Region President Nechirvan Barzani met the emir of Qatar and its prime minister in Doha on Sunday. The president is in the Gulf state to discuss increasing ties, including investment opportunities, Rudaw reported.
This is an important meeting and illustrates how Gulf countries are continuing to play a potentially important and emerging role in the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq. This matters because Erbil and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) are a stable prosperous region that is part of the arc of stability that Gulf countries want to invest in across the region. 

This follows a meeting in September when Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy supreme commander of the UAE Armed Forces, met with Barzani on the sidelines of his visit to the United Kingdom in September, as well as another meeting in the UAE in June.

What are Barzani’s priorities? He has discussed relations with the Gulf states in the past and has mentioned investment and economic development. During the Qatar visit, reports say that Barzani met with Prime Minister Khalid bin Khalifa bin Abdulaziz Al Thani on Sunday morning and then went into a meeting with the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, according to Rudaw’s Halkawt Aziz in Doha. 

“I had the pleasure of meeting the emir of Qatar, his highness Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, in Doha,” tweeted Barzani. “We held talks on strengthening and developing our bilateral relations, in addition to issues of common interest in Iraq and the Middle East.”

Kurdistan Regional Government Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani shows his ink-stained finger after casting his vote at a polling station during parliamentary elections in the semi-autonomous region in Erbil, Iraq September 30, 2018. (credit: THAIER AL-SUDANI/REUTERS)Kurdistan Regional Government Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani shows his ink-stained finger after casting his vote at a polling station during parliamentary elections in the semi-autonomous region in Erbil, Iraq September 30, 2018. (credit: THAIER AL-SUDANI/REUTERS)

He discussed trade and the recent Iraqi elections. There was also talk of direct flights and tourism.

It is important to remember that back in 2013, Erbil was supposed to be a major center of tourism for the region. Many Arabs from across Iraq and as far as the Gulf go to Erbil and the Kurdish region because of its peace and stability as well as its beautiful mountains and rivers. The ISIS invasion of Iraq in 2014 harmed tourism and then there was the pandemic in 2020.

However, it is possible that things may change again. Dohuk, one of the major cities in the Kurdish region, has impressive infrastructure, nice hotels and Turkish investment. Turkey is a key ally of Qatar. Together, Turkey and Qatar have decent relations with Iran. Barzani has also enjoyed amicable ties with Iran and he is close with western leaders.  

Overall then, the context is that in the wake of the end of the Gulf crises in 2020, there is a lot of room for the Kurdish region to grow its contacts in Doha and Abu Dhabi.

“The latest developments in confronting terrorism and ISIS [Islamic State] threats, ways and means of confronting terror and violent ideology, the situation of refugees in Syria’s al-Hol camp,” were also on the agenda, according to Rudaw.

The KRG has hosted hundreds of thousands of refugees from across Iraq, including Yazidis who were persecuted by ISIS. The KRG is also a key lifeline to Syria and the Kurdish region there. It also hosts US forces, much as Abu Dhabi and Doha do. That means it is part of the arc of stability and US friends and partners in the region. Along with Jordan and other states, this is important.  

According to the reports, the discussion with the Qataris could mean more business opportunities. Qatar is also a key player in other investments, including funding the Gaza Strip.

The UAE and Israel have new relations after the Abraham Accords. This is part of the wider regional consensus on improving trade and peace in the wake of the ISIS war and in the shadow of extremism. “This visit is very important and shows the development in relations between Qatar and Kurdistan Region,” Omar al-Barzanji, Iraq’s ambassador to Qatar, told Rudaw last week.

“Qatar is waiting for real opportunity to invest in the Kurdistan Region, these have certain requirements as many businessmen ask for bank insurance in the Kurdistan Region,” he said, “and I hope that the Kurdistan Region thinks of this so it does not become an obstacle.” 

It remains to be seen if the Gulf will begin to invest even more seriously in Erbil and the Kurdish region and whether that investment will also flow to Nineveh and Kirkuk and other areas around the KRG, key governorates that need rebuilding after ISIS and also want to be free of extremism.  

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