With the Crash of ‘08 ushering in the 2009 worldwide slump, it is clear that the economic crisis will hit richer countries more than others. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 2009 growth estimates for the United States, Iceland, and Switzerland, are respectively -1 percent, -9 percent and zero percent, while for China, India, and Indonesia they are eight percent, seven percent and five percent. In the European Union, it is noteworthy that wealthy Holland and Britain are set to do badly next year, with projected growth of zero percent and -1 percent respectively, while relatively poor Slovakia and Poland are due to expand at four percent and three percent. Though this is not an absolute rule — for example lowly Portugal will not do well in 2009, growing at zero percent, while better off Slovenia is set to expand by two percent. It is interesting to see how some economies with sophisticated securities exchanges have got into a mess, while less advanced countries avoided such hassles and as such could grow more. Of course, the correlation is imprecise, but for once 2009 may be a case of the rich not getting richer, while the less well off do relatively better. This phenomenon might also be observed in the Middle East, where the free-wheeling Dubai and Kuwait, for example, have not done well over the past few months and do not enjoy a rosy short-term outlook, while poorer areas in the region are less affected and might perform relatively better next year. The economies of Syria and Yemen have not nosedived, nor has there been a share price crash in Damascus or Sanaa for the simple reason that they do not have stock markets. Kurdistan in the north of Iraq may be just such a Cinderella economy in 2009, going from neglect to becoming something of a star. Baghdad and other parts of central and southern Iraq are unstable, but the Kurdish province in the northeast is another story. For a start, there is security and a low crime rate, with a prison population of about 1000 in a region where five million people live. The comparable ratio in the US is 50 times higher.
Politically autonomous within Iraq, Kurdistan has lots of potential. The province enjoys abundant natural resources and advantages, including a pleasant climate, fertile soil and high oil reserves. Growing investments in housing, tourism and industry have come to the region in the past few years and there is also great potential in other sectors. Vital petroleum reserves are abundant, a main attraction for investors. Only about 10 percent of the region has been explored and there is probably a lot more oil waiting to be tapped. Additionally, oil production costs are among the lowest in the world, with vast deposits of petroleum lying close to the surface in much of the province. Kurdistan is also abundant in cattle, sheep, cereals, fruits and vegetables. The province is now developing the infrastructure to get these and other products to regional and world markets, with new highways being built and others under repair. One problem is underdeveloped air transport, especially important for the landlocked province. However, with a major airport expansion project in the regional capital of Erbil set to come to fruition very soon, Kurdistan will open up to tourists and investors alike. Though already served by several carriers such as Turkish airlines, Royal Jordanian, Austrian and Emirates — as well as Iraqi Airways — the big new airport opening in Erbil in 2009 will make it easier for businesses to operate in Kurdistan, as well as promote it as a tourism destination.
Kurdistan has a lot to offer. Erbil is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and boasts a huge citadel designated by UNESCO as a major historic architectural site. Yet, for that and many other spectacular natural or historic areas throughout Kurdistan to attract tourists, hotel facilities need to be upgraded. Although several international five-star hotel brands will arrive in Kurdistan next year, most notably the German company Kempinski in Erbil, the province still has some way to go in the development of tourism. In these and other areas, with Arab money pulling out of world bourses, the province could become a regional investment magnet. For Kurdistan, war could be a thing of the past and like its poorer neighbors in the region, it may be on the road to economic development in 2009, despite the world crisis.
Riad al Khouri, co-founder and principal of
KryosAdvisors, is senior fellow of the William Davidson
Institute at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor