Peaceful from above, but the Iraqi-Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah is well known for controversy.
The northern Iraqi city of Sulaymaniyah prides itself on its contrary but open nature. It is most definitely one of the most relaxed cities in the country, culturally speaking. And many locals believe that, as a result, it is also one of the cities in the country most inclined to protest or to get involved in political conflict.
The problem with this is, some analysts are now saying, is that the city is also paying a financial price for its historical outspokenness.
The latest political stoush to upset the city is a rift in the political party that more or less runs the town, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK. At the beginning of September, two very senior members of the PUK - Kosrat Rasul Ali and Barham Salih – announced that they were forming a new group inside the party that they called “a decision making centre”. The new decision-making wing of the party was supposed to provide opposition to the woman who is considered by many to be leading the party right now, businesswoman Hero Ibrahim Ahmad, who is the wife of former Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani.
This city is built on a civil society and that’s why conflicts come out into the open decisively here.
“Conflicts inside the PUK always have a big impact on the city,” PUK member, Farid Assasrad, told NIQASH. “And its often a negative impact.”
Local journalist, Asos Hardi, founder of the independent newspaper, Awene, believes that Sulaymaniyah’s lively culture means that the city will always be a magnet for trouble. “It is one of the most vital cities in Iraqi Kurdistan, and in Iraq, and that’s why both political and cultural movements have thrived here, throughout the city’s history,” Hardi says. “This city is built on a civil society and that’s why conflicts come out into the open decisively here.”
However, Hardi didn’t deny that this restiveness could have a negative impact on the city too.
“Political conflicts have negatively impacted the city’s economic and social development,” complains Yassin Mahmoud Rashid, the spokesperson for the Kurdistan Investors’ Union, an association of Iraqi Kurdish businesspeople. “It is like the city is infected with conflict. Every political and economic problem seems to start and end here.”
Mahmoud Rashid said that the statistics the Union collected confirm that political problems are bringing the city’s economy close to collapse.
There has been plenty of action in Sulaymaniyah over the past decade or so, including the PUK splintering, the growth of a genuine opposition out of that splinter group that came to be known as the Change movement and popular protests over wages and corruption. Many locals also believe that all the stalled projects and incomplete infrastructure are due to the fact that the relationship between the PUK and the Change movement, and the region’s other major political party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, is more tense at the moment; they say Sulaymaniyah’s reputation as the opposition party’s hometown and a town with a rebellious attitude mean that the city is being marginalized and incoming cash is being throttled by those in the KDP who control it.
“The economy of any city depends on its stability,” Iraqi Kurdish politician, Ali Hama Salih, a member of the anti-corruption Change movement and deputy head of the Iraqi Kurdish Parliament’s Economics Committee, says. “Sulaymaniyah hasn’t been stable for years though and its economy disintegrates day by day, as a result.”
Sulaymaniyah has industry and is also a major tourist attraction, particularly for visitors coming from inside Iraq. But those numbers have dropped as a result of Iraq’s security crisis.
After 2003’s US-led invasion of Iraq, Sulaymaniyah did actually prosper for some time, along with the rest of the semi-autonomous northern region, Salih points out. “But political conflicts over the past few years have halted that growth and conditions are worsening,” he notes.
“If the Ministry of Trade were to conduct research in Sulaymaniyah today they would find that the city doesn’t come near its former economic highs,” Mahmoud Rashid says. “Investment in Sulaymaniyah has almost completely stopped and formerly profitable sectors have stopped being so. In the past investors were funding the power-generation sector, investing some US$3 billion in power plants, but now work in that area has been suspended, thanks to political conflict and economic insecurity.”
Mahmoud Rashid says he knows of at least 11 major investors who have left the city and put their money into businesses in Iran and Turkey instead. “Sulaymaniyah is closing up,” he adds. “Foreign investors are not coming here and local investors are running away.”
There are two options that Sulaymaniyah’s leaders and people have today: Stop protesting and fighting, or keep on with those contrarian ways. Given the nature of the city’s culture though and the pride locals seem to have in their willingness to ask questions and to debate the answers, it’s more than likely that the latter will be their choice – which means it’s also likely the city will continue to pay an economic price for its open but difficult ways.