AMMAN, Jordan -
Relations between the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and the autonomous Kurdistan Region in northern Iraq are going from strength to strength, said Falah Mustafa, head of Erbil’s Department of Foreign Relations.
Barely a month after his most recent high-level visit to Jordan, where he met with King Abdullah, Mustafa spoke to Rudaw about the depth and longevity of the Jordan-Kurdistan relationship.
"Kurdistan has had historical ties with the Kingdom of Jordan since the times of late General Mullah Mustafa Barzani and King Hussein bin Talal,” he said. “This relationship has continued and there is an increased interest from both sides to further enhance relations.”
Royal Jordanian Airlines (RJ), Jordan’s flag carrier, is one of the most visible ties that continue to draw closer and bear fruit – tourist spending, business travel and airport customs – for both partners.
When RJ began service to Erbil in 2006, it offered just four flights per week. In the years since, demand has driven a more than 100 percent expansion: today, RJ offers nine flights from Amman to Erbil each week, plus flights to Sulaimani.
“Erbil constitutes a significant route on the RJ network, and it is showing a growing demand in light of the increased business in northern Iraq,” said RJ spokesperson Basel Kilani.
Alongside these flights, Jordan also has a joint venture project in the Duhok governorate worth $8 million, a representative from Kurdistan’s Department of Foreign Relations told Rudaw.
The cultural and economic factors that drive initiatives such RJ’s expansion and the Duhok project, and the security environment required to sustain them, are increasingly visible in Kurdistan. Businesses are booming, the population is rising as diaspora Kurds return home, and the instability that wracks the rest of Iraq largely remains outside the borders of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
Mustafa described the Jordanian-Kurdish relationship that has grown out of this environment as one where “there is cooperation both ways, not only politically, but also economically, socially and culturally."
Jordan was one of the first countries to open a full consulate in the Kurdish capital in 2010.
Yet, despite this longstanding, multifaceted relationship, the regional trade partner benefiting most from Kurdistan’s development and stability is not Jordan. It is Turkey.
The food in supermarkets, the trinkets for sale at Erbil’s bazaar and the lorries streaming into the country to keep shelves stocked make clear the extent of Kurdistan’s economic dependence on Turkish imports.
And it is not just about the goods you can fit on the back of a truck: Throughout Kurdistan, the Turkish soap operas and racy music videos playing at Erbil neighborhood cafés underscore the not insignificant cultural element of this relationship. Look, too, at the companies building these cafes: many of the names are Turkish.
“Turkey has seen the full scope of the opportunity. It understands how to invest in Kurdistan in a way Jordan doesn’t,” said Abdelwadoud al-Kurdi, deputy general manager of the Kurdi Group, an Amman-based real estate and development company.
“Cement and steel are the main sectors of investment,” he said. “But there are not less than 100 products ready for a new customer-supplier, client-contractor relationship.”
Despite his own and his company’s Kurdish heritage, al-Kurdi says the multinational company, worth in excess of $500 million, hasn’t been able to invest in Kurdistan. “We’ve been trying since 2006, but we don’t have money in our pocket: We use bank money. And when we last tried to do this in Kurdistan, the facilities just weren’t there.”
Kurdistan remains a largely cash economy, although international banks are starting to offer more and more services.
Al-Kurdi thinks Jordan’s failure to seize the potential of the Kurdish market come down to economic realities -- and geopolitics. “Jordan is a poor country,” he said. “Turkey and Iran are the dominant regional powers. They also have border access.”
Riad al-Khouri, a Jordanian economist and former dean of business at Erbil’s BMU Lebanese French University, agreed: “Although there is a large Arab business presence in Kurdistan there is not specifically a Jordanian presence. There’s no special role for Jordan in Kurdistan, but there is a special role for Turkey.”
But al-Kurdi revealed that he isn’t giving up on efforts to crack his ancestors’ market. The company is currently working on a new plan, a $350 million project to build an upscale Erbil Complex. “It depends on finance in Erbil, but it’s viable,” Kurdi said.