The 58-year-old Iraqi had visited the city of Sulaymaniyah, in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, many times before. The Baghdad local, who wished to be known only as Abu Salwan, really liked the city. In the past he has always returned to the Iraqi capital – but when he arrived here five years ago, he made a momentous decision: This time he wasn’t going back.
Like many others, Abu Salwan says that when he began to fear daily for the lives of his family and his own life in the Iraqi capital, Sulaymaniyah was the first place that came to mind, a place where he hoped he would find peace and a better life.
“I don’t believe there is a difference between the Kurds and the Arabs here,” Abu Salwan addresses the idea that there might be racism in the northern region, which has its own borders and laws and which has largely been protected from the security crisis caused by the extremist group, the Islamic State. “I came here some time ago when security deteriorated in Baghdad and I settled here in Sulaymaniyah because the people here are kind hearted.”
This may be a slightly optimistic view. Even a quick look at local social media shows a slew of racist comments and anti-Arab arguments from Iraqi Kurdish users. One of the topics many of these anti-immigration individuals are talking about is a decision made by the governor of Sulaymaniyah, Aso Faraidoon Amin, less than a week ago.
Mashxal Kaulusy, writer: I don’t have a problem with hosting displaced people in the city. However I do think this needs to be regulated.
On July 16, Amin issued a decision saying that real estate and other property could be registered in the names of Iraqi Arabs and other foreign citizens, on the condition that they had been vetted by local security.
“The province is suffering a lot from a lack of liquidity,” the deputy governor of Sulaymaniyah, Sardar Qadir, told NIQASH. “There is not a lot of buying and selling going on. We wanted to revive the markets somewhat and that’s why we’ve made this decision. We want people who appreciate the stability of the city to come and live here, and to invest in Sulaymaniyah.”
“The time when there was only one voice and one language in this city is in the past,” Qadir continued. “We are living in a time when cities must open up to the world and if we want to eventually build a Kurdish state, we need to have good relations with Iraq, Turkey and the Arabs of Iraq. Life – and peaceful coexistence – is based on being a good neighbour.”
The new decision actually replaces one made by Sulaymaniyah’s provincial council in late 2015, which basically said that only Kurds could register real estate, residences or business property until after the security crisis was over.
Unsurprisingly, opinions on the latest decision – to allow Arabs to own property in Sulaymaniyah – are split. Some locals believe this will lead to an influx of Arabs and the loss of the Kurdish nature of the province. Others, who are thought to be the majority, welcome the new ruling.
“The decision has been criticised,” Qadir readily admits. “But we are ready to discuss the decision with anyone who wants to. We do not intend for any Arab-majority in Sulaymaniyah and we are also aware that such a thing could be dangerous in areas like the disputed territories,” he says; here Qadir is talking about land that Iraqi Kurdistan believes should belong to the region but which Iraq says belongs to the federal state.
As it is, it seems that the numbers of internally displaced Iraqis, many of whom fled to Iraqi Kurdistan for safety, are dropping anyway. As the extremist Islamic State, or IS, group is pushed out of central Iraq, many people are hoping to return home and some are actually doing so. Recent figures, provided by Qadir’s office, show that where there were once 500,000 displaced people in the Kurdish region it is thought there are only about 386,000 now.
“It’s a good decision,” says Salam Khaled, a journalist originally from Fallujah, who moved to Iraqi Kurdistan three years ago with his family. “The Arabs of Iraq are searching for a stable place to invest in. It will only improve coexistence,” he says, adding that he does not believe the Kurdish are racists.
On the opposite side of the argument there are people like Mashxal Kaulusy, a writer and political analyst.
“I don’t have a problem with hosting displaced people in the city,” Kaulusy told NIQASH. “Nor will I have in the future. However I do think this needs to be regulated. After all, what happens if more and more displaced persons come and eventually change the demography of the region? The sale of land and houses to Arabs will endanger the Kurdish culture and the Kurdish themselves may not be able to find real estate they want,” he suggests. “If tough measures are not put in place, there will be serious consequences for Iraqi Kurdistan.”
Kaulusy, a self-described “nationalist”, also believes that Sulaymaniyah’s governor made this decision under pressure from the real estate industry and developers, without taking into account other factors.
The governor’s decision also saw protestors gather outside the provincial council buildings recently. In a statement, they said that they thought it was all about a conspiracy to bring more Arabs to Sulaymaniyah.
For now though, the voices of those who would welcome Iraq’s Arabs to Sulaymaniyah are still louder. “Racist Kurds are saying the Arabs will occupy Sulaymaniyah,” local writer Kamyar Sabir told NIQASH. “They want to say that there is a relationship between the ownership of a house and sovereignty. Such hatred is nothing but racism,” he concludes.