There are plenty of reasons to be excited about Erbil: it has a considerable amount of political freedom, a forward-thinking development plan, jaw-dropping scenery and is comparably much safer to visit than neighbouring Iraqi cities.
Located at the heart of Iraqi Kurdistan, Erbil is one of the region’s three governorates (the other two are Sulaymaniyah and Duhok). Although the movement for Kurdish autonomy dates back to 1923, it took several decades to be achieved, during which time Erbil was not even thrown the breadcrumbs from Baghdad’s budget. Now, with Kurdistan receiving a 17 per cent share of Iraq’s federal funds and under the shrewd leadership of Erbil’s governor, Nawzad Hadi, infrastructure and development projects are speeding ahead.
“From 1923 until 2004, the Iraqi government only spent a small fraction of its budget on Erbil,” explains Mr Hadi. “But now the region has the power to manage its own budget and is spending wisely, creating growth and attracting floods of people in the form of both visitors and human capital.”
He points out: “In 2003, there were around 34,000 cars in Erbil, but now we have around half a million, including new models. This reflects the development here.”
Erbil is also developing as a health care centre for the whole of Iraq, with patients coming from Basra, Baghdad and other provinces to be treated there. All this is evidence of the economic and social progress that sets Erbil and Kurdistan apart from the rest of the country.
“You could say that economically, Erbil is the alternative to Baghdad. This is the first time that Kurds are involved in all sectors. The Constitution gave us the authority to do this on our own. Many things have changed in a very short period of time. Even the mentality of the people is changing. We are living together now. In Erbil 12 or 15 years ago, you never saw any foreign people, but now you do. People can live together, and we are showing people that we can succeed,” Mr Hadi says.
The Kurdish Regional Government has a developmental vision, which involves focusing on the energy sector. “We are starting to resolve the issue of electricity,” says Mr Hadi. “We have a master plan and will expand the city to the north and to the upper river. And we will be supporting the private sector; all sectors should move together.”
The government is also working to better utilise other resources such as water. “We have good water resources, but up until now, we have not had enough dams,” the governor explains. “So we have a five-year plan that focuses on this sector.”
Transport infrastructure is also receiving attention. And the government hopes to increase tourism as a consequence of the improvements. “We have a plan to develop the tourism sector for the future,” explains Mr Hadi. “We have a strong focus on providing good infrastructure. We need more highways; for example from Erbil to the Iranian border. This area is predominantly mountainous and we need about $1 billion of investment for highways and tunnels.”
The city’s new airport boasts a long runway of almost five kilometres, which is capable of receiving a vast range of aircraft. As a result, several prestigious new airlines, including Emirates, have been added to its visitor list in the past year – thus bringing in additional tourists and opening up a new cargo route between Erbil and Dubai. In addition, a number of luxurious hotels have sprung up and there are plans for a golf course.
Erbil has big ideas when it comes to developing its tourist sector and is already on the right track, having been named the Arab Council of Tourism’s 2014 Tourism Capital.
Regional tourism is thriving, but there is work to be done to attract more Western visitors. “Until now, tourists have been mostly local, from Iraq (the middle and the south),” says Mr Hadi. “They tend to go to the mountains. Iranians are also coming in – sometimes even famous Iranian singers. Thousands of Kurds are also coming from Iran to our region as well.”
Tourism is not the sole focus of the government’s development plans – trade relations with the UK are being nurtured too. “Our relations with the UK are very important to us,” says Mr Hadi. “We are looking to find more links and develop the relationship further so that the UK private sector can work with Kurdistan. We think that is good for both sides.”
The number of development projects demonstrates the government’s plan to move forward and leave past suffering behind. “Kurds never focus on revenge,” remarks Mr Hadi. “We suffered in the past with the Saddam regime and other previous regimes, but as of 2003, Kurdistan’s policy has not been focused on revenge, but rather on how to develop the region and to live in peace.”
Kurdistan has a comprehensive plan to invest in the future of its people and develop the region to its maximum capacity. Its increasing stability and peace-minded political leadership, combined with numerous economic development initiatives, makes Kurdistan an investment destination worth considering.