In an ordinary sitting late last month, the provincial council in Sulaymaniyah, a northern Iraqi province, made a decision that some locals thought was appalling but which others welcomed enthusiastically. The council decided that Iraqi Arabs would no longer be able to buy property in Sulaymaniyah, which is one of three provinces making up the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan.
In Sulaymaniyah the sale, transfer or purchase of property by non-Kurds is now banned. Of course, the new rule also applies to other foreigners. But clearly the main targets are the many Iraqi Arabs who have flooded into the more secure, semi-autonomous northern region due to the security crisis.
The council members justified their new rule by saying that so many Arabs have moved into the area, formerly dominated by Iraqis of Kurdish ethnicity, that the demography of the area was changing. Additionally the Arabs tended to be better off than many Kurdish people and they feared that Arabs would end up owning all of the property.
“Around 400,000 Arabs have come to the province and without some controls, the city's demographic make up would have changed,” explains Haval Abubaker, the head of Sulaymaniyah's council, justifying the decision. “What we have done is also completely constitutional because the Iraqi Constitution prohibits any development that could lead to demographic change in an area. We should also add that this decision is only temporary, and that it also targets other non-Kurdish individuals, not just Arabs.”
The fear is that Arabs will become property owners and the Kurds can only afford to be their tenants.
The new rule has an out clause that can be invoked when the security crisis caused by the extremist group known as the Islamic State ends. At that stage, any Iraqi, no matter whether Kurdish or not, will once again have the right to own property in Sulaymaniyah province.
While some have welcomed the move, others are uncertain and even angry about it. Some have argued that the decision is the result of ever-increasing racism in Iraqi Kurdistan directed at displaced Arabs living there now – many locals suspect that the Arabs are terrorists or are dangerous and, as the security crisis continues, anti-Arab sentiment continues to run high.
“The decision made by the Sulaymaniyah council is completely unconstitutional and in fact, the council doesn’t have the authority to make a decision like this,” argues Jassim Mohammed Jaafar, a Kurdish MP who is also Iraq's Minister of Immigration. “I don't know how this decision will be enforced. But having said that, I haven’t heard any complaints about it yet either from Arabs.”
The influx of Iraqi Arabs is having a major economic impact on Iraqi Kurdistan in many ways. And some of those who benefit financially from the fact that so many Arabs have had to come to their hometown, are not sure if it's wise to make such rules.
Iraqi Kurdistan has been having financial problems for some time now, ever since conflicts between the government in the semi-independent region and the federal government in Baghdad began. Locals' purchasing power has fallen – in a country where many people are employed by the government, a financially unstable Iraqi Kurdish government hasn't always been able to pay its employees on time. But the local market for all kinds of goods has been buoyed by the Iraqi Arabs here, who do get their salaries on time from the federal government.
One mobile phone store owner in central Sulaymaniyah, Shirwan Ali, says he is almost totally dependent on Iraqi Arabs for his business now. “Kurdish pockets are almost completely empty,” Ali told NIQASH. “In the past we used to sell phones on a hire purchase scheme with monthly payments. But we can't do that anymore. People are only getting their salaries every four months! So we are totally dependent on the Arabs.”
“The impact of the displaced Arab citizens on Kurdistan is double edged,” says Kurdish MP and economist Izzat Saber, who heads the local Parliament's Committee on Finance and Economics. “If they spent all of their money here, and the region didn't have to take any responsibility for them, then yes, their presence is an asset to Kurdistan. But there is fear everywhere here – including in Sulaymaniyah – that the Arabs will become property owners and the Kurds will only be their tenants.”
“It is true that Arabs are supporting the markets here. Many of them are government employees or pensioners and they spend their monthly salaries here,” Saber adds. “But at the same time they are a burden on the region's power, water and health services and they take a share of what should belong to the local Kurdish people.”
There is also another theory that says that higher prices in Iraqi Kurdistan have been caused by the influx of displaced Arabs. More demand means higher prices, suggests Abubaker, the head of Sulaymaniyah's council. “Arab citizens are behind the rise in prices here. That is why we took these steps – in response to demand from local Kurds.”
The decision taken in Sulaymaniyah has had a knock on effect – now locals in Iraqi Kurdistan's other two provinces – Dohuk and Erbil – are also asking if they could enact a similar rule.
“The Kurdish Parliament couldn’t make a decision like this because it violates the Iraqi constitution,” says Saber. “This says that any Iraqi citizen can own property, from Basra [in the south] to Dohuk. It is only the provincial councils, like in Sulaymaniyah, who can make these kinds of rules. They have the right to ask the Iraqi government to be responsible for all of the displaced people in the province. If it doesn’t take that responsibility, then it is only fair that displaced people not be allowed to own property.”