I really enjoyed meeting the land removal NGO manager. I learned a lot about what has been happening on the ground here, in Erbil, over the past few years. First, whilst present here in substantial numbers, the US donated a lot of money to developmental NGOs and infrastructure projects such as schools, clinics, roads etc. As they left, this stream of money stopped flowing; most NGOs left and building projects remained unfinished. For the few NGOs now left, the focus is on building up the local population’s soft skills – including English language and basic management skills.
Second, Erbil is experiencing a huge real estate bubble built on the back of a non- existent financial lending market. Most constructions here – including private houses and large real estate development projects were built on land sold at token prices by the Kurdish government, on condition that at least 50% of the project must be completed by a certain date. The projects were financed with private income, a lot derived from oil sales revenues, as well as a nascent gas export industry which, unlike the oil industry, is locally controlled by the Kurds. Few if any commercial loans were applied for or extended. The result is that the current supply of residential and office space vastly exceeds demand, yet the prices remain very high – unaffordable for the local resident earning on average $400-$600 per month. Yet the prices are not falling anywhere since owners and developers are under no pressure to repay loans and interests and therefore are waiting for demand to pick up. At the same time, many projects remain unfinished, after having just passed the 50% mark – the threshold set by authorities.
The result is this exploding metropolis which has experienced a tremendous concentric expansion outwards from its historical centre, with brand new apartment buildings and residential complexes, a lot of them unfinished and, if completed, half unoccupied. Consequently, Erbil looks like a vast building site with huge suburbs, where one can see little building activity and few actual residents compared with the vastness of the built-up residential areas.
These issues however must be kept in perspective compared with the problems faced by southern Iraq, where things which are now taken for granted here – good, safe roads, continuously available clean water, almost uninterrupted electrical power, a secure and peaceful city where most residents se to have some type of employment – usually more than 1 job at a time, can only be dreamed of in Baghdad, Basrah and other Arab areas of the country. In fact, the Kurdish zone and Erbil in particular have experienced huge flows of internal migration by people displaced in other areas of Iraq, or simply looking for a better life. Christians in particular have moved here in large numbers,,thus doubling the size and population of Ainkawa, Erbil’s traditional Christian quarter, in only a few years. Once a will age well outside Erbil, now both have expanded so that Ainkawa is part and parcel of Erbils suburbs and the centre of its nightlife.
In the afternoon I met with the HR manager of the local GM operation, who confirmed a lot of what I had learned earlier in the day – especially the need to build up the soft skills of the local population and the vast divide in living standards, development and security between Iraq’s Kurdish province and the rest of the country.
By the end of the day I was really tired so I left office relatively early, around 5:30, and went home to crash – on an empty stomach, since the chicken Sean wanted to cook for dinner was still frozen stiff…