In line with our process of being on the ground in the countries we invest in, AFC Iraq Fund CIO Ahmed Tabaqchali travelled to Iraq recently for an investment conference. All photos are by Asia Frontier Capital, except where noted otherwise.
As discussed in last month’s travel report, this trip to Iraq had several purposes, namely to take part in a Banking conference, meet young Iraqi entrepreneurs, visit companies, and pay a visit to the Iraq Stock Exchange. I also planned to visit the Institute of Regional and International Studies (IRIS) and its parent, the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani (AUIS) in Iraq’s Kurdistan to follow up with future direct research projects on Iraq’s economy post ISIS, and to visit one of Kirkuk’s oil fields. Last month’s travel report was focused on Baghdad, while this month’s report is focused on Kurdistan.
Most of the recent coverage of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) has been on the independence referendum of September 2017, while before that, coverage was mostly of the region’s oil industry. This report will not look into these issues, however, the historical background for the referendum and of the Kurdistan issue in Iraq was reviewed in my recent article “Historic Grievance: A Flawed Narrative for Statehood?”
The first part of the Kurdistan trip was to the city of Sulaimani, or Al-Sulaymaniyah or simply Sulaymaniyah in the Arabic adaptation of the original Kurdish name Slemani. Similar to the way that Baghdad was built and founded, Sulaimani was founded by Prince Ibrahim Pasha Baban to be the capital of the Baban Emirate in 1784, and was named after his father, Sulaiman Pasha. The city is a mere child among Iraqi cities and in particular to Erbil, the capital of the KRI, which is much older than Sulaimani and is home to one of the world’s oldest citadels.
The similarity to Baghdad extends to its cultural appeal as a capital city, attracting philosophers, poets and writers, which it has maintained throughout the decades. It continues this tradition as an open, liberal and tolerant city- loved by expatriates who affectionately nicknamed it Suli. The city exemplifies the Kurd’s tolerance and open mindedness, especially with regards to gender equality as it is manifested in the independence and treatment of women, a promising model for the rest of Kurdistan and Iraq.
The city is the cultural capital of the KRI, and the heart of the Sorani Kurdish culture. Sorani is one of the two main varieties of Kurdish dialects, the other being Kurmanji whose centre is Erbil. Until recently, the dialects were somewhat mutually unintelligible, but this changed with the prosperity that the region attained as the advent of satellite TV has bridged the gap between dialects, much in the same way that Egyptian movies had on the Arab world from the 50’s and more recently satellite TV.
The central role that culture plays makes it an ideal educational city, as it is home to two public universities and five private universities, including the focus of my visit “The American University of Iraq, Sulaimani” (AUIS) and its research centre “The Institute of Regional and International Studies” (IRIS) of which I am a non-resident fellow. AUIS celebrated its 10-year anniversary in 2017 as a non-for-profit public institution, which coincidently was the year that I became familiar with the remarkable research that the IRIS research team was conducting, and in particular the work on the disputed territories and on “post-ISIS Iraq”.
The purpose of my visit was to get to know the AUIS & IRIS teams better and to start the process for conducting further on the ground research of Iraq’s economy post-ISIS as a follow up to my first research publication for IRIS “Iraq's Economy after ISIS: An Investor's Perspective”. My other research interests are the economic roots of extremism and the economic aspects of the KRI within a federal Iraq. The first was a report that looked at the economic viability of an independent Kurdistan “Statehood in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq through an economic Lens”, while the second is a follow-up piece on the economic benefits of the KRI within a federal Iraq, which I will start working on in March.
The one-hour flight from Baghdad to Sulaimani International airport landed late at night. The late-night tour of the city was brief, yet it provided a wonderful sense of the peace and tranquillity that Kurdistan enjoyed in the last 13 years in spite of all the violence and turmoil that Iraq went through during that period. In fact, the drive through the city felt no different than any other city that I have been through over the years, and in particular it showcases developments that took place in the region. The final destination, the university’s apartment buildings within the Pak City development, is a perfect example of this.