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Arab influx to Iraqi Kurdistan helps revive economy but corrupts local culture, critics say

Iraqi Kurds are alarmed by the influx of Arabs into their region, fearing they will dilute their ethnic identity and corrupt their values. Yet the Arabs are critical to the region's economy, which increasingly caters to their needs.

ERBIL/DAHUK, Iraqi Kurdistan — Amid the haze of shisha smoke, young women with pouty lips and scanty clothes cast languid glances at Erbil's Cafe Hamdil where Iranian prostitutes exclusively ply their trade. A 10-year-old girl with an impish grin hawks roses to aspiring Romeos. A youth with thickly gelled hair and a T-shirt that says “Thanks Insomnia” takes the bait.

It's Thursday night, and the Lebanese Village in Erbil is heaving with men willing to pay $200 for an hour of pleasure. They typically spend it at the Masaya Hotel that is strategically located near a strip of clubs in this notionally gated community. The anodyne block is said to be owned by the Hariris, Lebanon’s storied family that produced two prime ministers and multiple entrepreneurs. It could only ever serve as a brothel with the consent of local authorities as documented by Al Jazeera in a chilling investigation on trafficking in Iraq.

The scene would have until recently been unimaginable in tradition-bound Kurdistan. For centuries, entertainment involved picnicking in the mountains and splashing around in icy streams for the rich and poor alike. The climax: Girls and boys doing the circle dance under their elders’ watchful eyes.

Justifiably or not, many blame an influx of Arabs for these and a host of other changes they say are tearing at the fabric of Kurdish identity. The resentment is nothing new. For decades, Iraqi Arab-led regimes in Baghdad oppressed the Kurds, subjecting them to forced Arabization and genocides. Mutual hostilities — and scorn — ran deep.

Yet starting in 1992 under the protection of a US no-fly zone, Kurds, Arabs and Turkomen began convening in Iraqi Kurdistan to plot against Iraq’s last dictator who was toppled in 2003 and to lay the foundations for a new, democratic Iraq.

The Sunni uprising that erupted soon after in response to America’s roughshod occupation prompted thousands of Arabs to seek haven in Kurdistan. A second wave ensued when the Islamic State (IS) began butchering its way across Iraq in 2014. In a rare display of racism that shocked the local intelligentsia, some Kurds began insisting the Arabs be interned in camps much like refugees from Syria and internally displaced Yazidis from Sinjar.

The latest flow of Arabs followed Iraqi Kurdistan’s botched referendum on independence in 2017, even as anti-Arab feelings were rekindled by the loss of a broad swath of so-called disputed territories to Iraqi forces, including the Kurdish “Jerusalem,” Kirkuk.

“We are very happy here,” said Muna Saeed, a Shiite Arab writer whose husband was executed by the Baath regime. Her daughter, Yamam, an artist, and two granddaughters concurred that life in Erbil was good in an interview with Al-Monitor at their villa in Atlantic City, another Arab-majority enclave on the outskirts of Erbil. “We moved here a year ago because we feel much safer here than we do in our family home in Baghdad,” Saeed explained over Iraqi delicacies.

Further north in the city of Dahuk, Yassin Abdelkader, a jeweler from Mosul, echoed those feelings. “In the time of Daesh, hundreds of thousands of Arabs from Mosul came here,” Abdelkader told Al-Monitor, using the Arabic language acronym for IS. “Only 200,000 are left — the ones who can afford the rent or to buy property here,” he said. “There is no problem between us and the Kurds. There is no threat of death here. I don’t want to go back to Mosul.”

In the early days of Arab migration, Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) authorities set up barriers and demanded that any Arab who entered its territory have a Kurdish custodian to vouch for their credentials. It’s since been eased. The formal reason for that condition was that the Arabs needed to be vetted for security. However, for millions of Kurds still dreaming of setting up a separate Kurdish homeland, the real threat was that of their ethnic identity being diluted by Arabs, acknowledged Mohammed Ihsan, a former KRG minister for minority affairs and a visiting professor at King’s College in London.

Though few would admit it, more unsettling perhaps is the prospect of not resenting the Arabs at all. Kurdish nationalism was defined by and thrived on the brutality of Iraq’s Arab rulers. “Kurdishness is much weaker now because there is nothing to react against,” Ihsan contended.

Perhaps Kurdish nationalism “needs a new vision,” ventured Bilal Wahab, a Nathan and Esther K. Wagner Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The KRG should make that mental shift where it says ‘we are not seceding but are going to maximize our place in Iraq,’” Wahab told Al-Monitor.  “We can look at Arab citizens as bridges with Iraq in the same way that Kurds are in Mosul and in Baghdad,” he added.

The KRG Ministry of Interior did not respond to Al-Monitor’s repeated queries about the size of the Kurdistan Region’s Iraqi Arab population. They are thought to be in the hundreds of thousands, with many settling their families mainly in Erbil while commuting back and forth for business to the rest of Iraq.

“They are 100% changing the culture here,” said Aso Fatah, a broker at Baghy Shaqlawa, a real estate chain that caters to Arabs. “They don’t want to change their attitude as neighbors. They behave as if they were in Baghdad. When they speak, they do so very loudly. The men wear shorts. The women are the opposite, dressed conservatively. They don’t bother to learn a word of Kurdish,” Fatah told Al-Monitor. “Drug use has increased. We never had these clubs with female dancers. We have Kurdish girls falling into this trap,” he added.

Nihad Ali Khoya, who sells Arabic CDs to a growing number of Kurdish customers, is seen here at his shop in Erbil on Nov. 20, 2022. (Amberin Zaman/Al-Monitor)

Many of the modern gyms sprouting across the upscale high rises in Erbil now offer belly dancing classes. This is a novelty. For Kurdish women, swaying one’s hips is equated with immodesty.

Ihsan the minister groused, “More Arab language is creeping into the Kurdish language. Kurdish youths listen to Arabic music without understanding the words. Shisha is a new thing. Kurds are going to those clubs.” He predicted that “long term it will be bad. We will enter a stage where we lose our cultural values."

In a small shop opposite Erbil’s ancient citadel, Nihad Ali Khoya sells pirated CDs of all the top Arab performers. “I have more and more Kurdish customers,” he told Al-Monitor. “Hussam Al-Rassam is one of their favorites,” Khoya revealed. Rassam, a late bloomer, is famous for pulsating, Western-style pop tunes that he blends with Iraqi rhythms.

Faced with a popular backlash, in August the KRG’s tourism board said it would punish hotels and restaurants with up to three days of closure if they failed to use the Kurdish language alongside Arabic and English in their names, menus and other printed materials.

Yet like many, Ihsan readily admits that the Arabs have helped turn Iraqi Kurdistan around, injecting cash into an economy whiplashed by IS’s assault in 2014 and Baghdad’s unremitting reluctance to pay the KRG its share of the national budget. “If the Arabs had not come to Erbil investing in hotels, real estate and restaurants, it would have been an absolute disaster,” Ihsan said.

A new building complex on the outskirts of Erbil caters to Arab tastes. Nov. 21, 2022. (Amberin Zaman/Al-Monitor)

At Ganjan, the housing complex where Aso, the broker, operates, 80% of properties are owned by Arabs from the rest of Iraq with prices ranging from $150,000 to over $1 million per unit. 

“The Arabs have had a very positive impact financially. They are rich, they provide employment, they trade. They have brought diversity,” said Las Jawher Abdullah, a lawyer. “Look at how the Syrians have enriched our cuisine,” he added. Abdullah was referring to Syrian Arabs and Kurds who fled to Iraqi Kurdistan during IS rule. Many have opened restaurants and beauty salons in the Kurdish capital.

Aso says the Arabs largely stick to themselves and their children rarely mingle with Kurds. Many are enrolled in Iraqi state schools with a full Arabic language curriculum or in private schools where lessons are taught in Arabic and English.

But not all Arabs who came here are rich, Ahmed Tabaqchaili, an economist and a senior fellow at the Institute of Regional and International Studies at the American University in Sulaimaniyah, told Al-Monitor, “Most of the Arab immigrants are either business people or people who take low-paying jobs.” These include working as domestic servants, a position few Kurds would deign to accept.

The large number of Arabs has added pressure on local infrastructure, with the demand for water and electricity soaring in recent years. But this has been more than offset by the extra spending by Arabs, Tabaqchaili noted. Unlike locals, they do not depend on government salaries. “On balance, their presence has been beneficial,” he said.

One growing and legitimate worry is the continued construction of housing projects, which far exceeds current demand. This in turn suggests that they serve as money laundering ventures for some of Kurdistan’s Arab investors, be they Iraqi or from elsewhere.

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