Arbil is no Barcelona

Arbil is no Barcelona

Both Arbil and Barcelona are going to hold independence referenda in less than a month. Arbil set the date for Sept. 25 and Barcelona for Oct. 1. 

The former is on the independence of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) from Iraq, and the latter on the independence of the Autonomous Government of Catalonia from Spain. Both Baghdad and Madrid are fiercely opposed to the plans of their regional governments. Despite the similarities however, it is worth pondering the considerable differences between them.

The per capita GDP of the 7.5 million Catalans in 2011 was around $27,900, while that of the average citizen of Spain was $22,900. The per capita GDP of the 8.3 million Iraqi Kurds was around $3,773, while that of the Iraqis on average was $4,600 dollars in 2011. According to the Rand Corporation’s 2016 estimates, we need to subtract around $1,000 from the KRG per capita GDP after the referendum to account for the possible lack of income from disputed hydrocarbons. But regardless, one thing is clear: the Catalans increase the Spanish average while the Kurds decrease the Iraqi average.

The manufacturing industry is the main source of value creation in Barcelona and all of Catalonia, while construction is the major source of value in Arbil and in all of Iraqi Kurdistan, especially if you take out hydrocarbons. Catalonia lies on the Mediterranean and Barcelona, its capital, is a port city. Iraqi Kurdistan, however, is landlocked. 

The Catalan referendum is really only a concern for the Spanish government. Yet Arbil’s referendum is a major concern for many other countries. U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis met with President Erdoğan this week and issued a statement asserting “both sides reiterated their commitment to the territorial integrity of Syria and Iraq.” So the Barcelona referendum is not seen as a threat to regional stability, but the Arbil referendum is. Why? Let me elaborate.

“Isn’t Arbil a natural extension of Turkey?” I was asked by a foreign observer recently. Yes, it is. I first visited Arbil in 2011. A Turkish plane took me from Istanbul to Arbil International Airport, which was built by a Turkish construction company. The shopping malls sported all the latest Turkish brands for everything from shoes to refrigerators. I was told that the shops were opened in such a hurry that some of the restaurants didn’t even bother to translate their menus from the original in Turkish. Needless to say, the place was alight with the construction projects of Turkish contractors. 

My point is that the KRG is kept afloat with foreign money and attention. The American invasion of Iraq and the Syrian civil war have paved the way for ethnic and sectarian violence. In this context, the referendum resonates another bit of balkanization, a giving in to this dynamic. It’s like another chapter of the infamous Eastern Question in which the Ottoman Empire kept losing territories, and the European powers competed among each other to scoop them up. Without a doubt, the region’s players are going to compete for influence in this tiny Kurdish enclave.

That is not what the region needs. What we should be doing is to find ways to make existing institutions work and use them to bring people together.

In comparison, no one is expecting any regional destabilization to come out of the Barcelona independence referendum. If the region decides to separate, it would probably result in a bureaucratic tangle across Barcelona, Madrid, Brussels and other European capitals, but it wouldn’t have a major impact on people’s lives. Children would still be tucked into their beds at night, the elderly would still get their substantial pensions. 

The same cannot be said for Arbil and its region. A split could have major ramifications for the region’s security. Can we afford that kind of an adventure?