My colleague Rachel recently went to Erbil to collect data – here’s her account of what it was like to be in Iraq for the first time! Regards, Mark.
As the Arab capital of Tourism 2014 and the self-styled “next Dubai”, Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, is a far cry from the bombs, blood and butchery associated with the war-torn central and southern regions. Autonomous since 2005, the region is intent on developing its retail and tourism and keen to disassociate itself from Iraq’s reputation of danger. In fact, in great contrast to the rest of Iraq, where 1,045 Iraqi civilians and soldiers were killed last month alone, since March 2003 according to the UN not a single coalition soldier or foreigner has been killed in the areas administered by the Kurdistan Regional Government. The FCO, which advises “against all but essential travel” for Iraq, doesn’t have any travel restrictions in place for Iraqi Kurdistan.
Certainly, with 17 consulates, 7 universities and two international airports, the region is fostering its international development and is benefiting from foreign investment. Workers displaced by Saddam’s regime are returning, bringing foreign contacts and expertise with them and so, unlike much of the rest of the world, Iraqi Kurdistan is in economic growth.
Having never been to the Middle East, let alone to Iraq, I was more than a little apprehensive about going. Erbil is much safer than Baghdad, but it’s still Iraq.
As it turned out, Iraqi Kurdistan was one of the most welcoming places I’ve visited and I didn’t feel unsafe once. It was difficult to reconcile the peaceful, welcoming place I discovered with the images of Iraq I’d seen in newspapers. As I overheard an American journalist say, “Iraqi Kurdistan is truly the other Iraq”
The two major malls in Erbil are the Family Mall and the Majidi mall. Apart from a picture outside banning guns (as well as food and pets) they could have been almost anywhere in the world.
Once inside the clean and shiny interior there were many names I recognised including a large Carrefour supermarket, and – like shopping malls the world over – it was filled with girls shopping in groups alongside young, rich couples, families and, well, all types of people really.
Erbil is big, and growing; everywhere there are signs of growth and development, with building sites, new shopping malls and new expatriate housing complexes. There are not too many garish neon lights, but there are billboards. The Kurdistan government is trying to promote the region as a tourist area, some even going so far to call it the “new Dubai”. Now, having only been to Dubai’s airport, I can’t comment from personal experience, but while Erbil is developed and has a surprisingly good shopping scene, I think it has a long way to go before it reaches Dubai’s levels. However with gleaming shopping malls, rich couples having coffee and children playing in the open air, this was definitely not the picture I had of Iraq.
This contrast between expectation and reality continued when I visited Erbil’s only real “tourist attraction”; the Citadel. On the list for UNESCO World Heritage status consideration, the Citadel claims to be the world’s oldest continually inhabited settlement. Now it is mainly ruins, but one family is permitted to live there, to keep the “continually inhabited” tagline. I walked there from the hotel as it was only about 5 minutes away and the hotel recommended walking. Erbil feels a very safe, modern city but at the Citadel you realise just how ancient it is.
Approaching the Citadel through the old market square, there were people everywhere I looked. This square, it seemed, was THE place to be for anybody and everybody at the weekend. The roads were lined with street sellers, selling all sorts: fruit sitting next to cigarettes, garish plastic toys and mobile phone bling. However, unlike many other places, I was not approached, harassed or even (generally) noticed. As a lone Western woman I expected to stand out (and certainly I saw very few people like myself) but beyond a mild curiosity from a few people, nobody bothered me at all. I didn’t even stand out because of my clothes. Women in hijabs mixed with women with bare heads and Western clothing, in the same way that some men wore traditional Arabic clothing while others were suited and booted.
I was especially struck by a family sitting near me: the mother clamped to her mobile phone, the harassed father left to deal with the two children, daughter in jeans and the son wearing an Angry Birds tee-shirt, probably as familiar a scene to Trafalgar Square as Erbil!
In fact, throughout my whole trip the only thing to tell me I was in “Iraq” was the tight security. All security guards had long guns. On the way out of the airport we passed through several security checkpoints, my bag was also scanned at the hotel and I was frisked. To get into the malls you have your bag scanned. At the airport for the return journey, the taxi was checked and sniffer-dogged before we even got into the airport parking and I was scanned at least six times before making it onto the plane.
While Erbil faces its challenges (newspapers recently report a worsening of relations with the Iraqi government in Baghdad over oil contracts) it offers considerable economic potential and investment opportunities. I don’t know if it will succeed in its aim of becoming “the next Dubai” or whether it will be hampered by the conflict to the south. However, from the waiter humming “je t’aime, moi non plus” to the family by the fountains, I was constantly surprised by the contrast between my expectation and reality. From my brief time there at least, I can wholeheartedly agree with its moniker “the other Iraq”.
Rachel is part of ECA International’s International Data Research team. She travels the world regularly, capturing price data for goods and services to assist with cost of living comparisons around the world