Survival Strategies and Diplomatic Tools:
The Kurdistan Region’s Foreign Policy Outlook
By Shwan Zulal
September 27, 2012
LONDON, — In
some basic outline, the paper gives the readers an
idea where Kurdistan Region foreign policy is at and
where it is heading. It also points out the values
and mechanisms the KRG are using and have used to
enhance their influence in the region, exploring the
issues behind the headlines. I have also touched on
the use of trade, investment and oil as a tool to
conduct diplomacy and what that means to Turkey with
specific focus on the issue of energy and oil, which
is the most important from a Turkish prospective.
The Future of Iraqi
Kurdistan: Between Survival & Independence
İhsan Dağı, Editor in Chief, Insight Turkey
"Turkey, the US and the KRG: Moving Parts and the
William Park, (Kings College, London)
"Democracy or Partition: Future Scenarios for the
Kurds of Iraq"
Burak Bilgehan Özpek, (TOBB ETU University,Ankara)
"Survival Strategies and Diplomatic Tools: The
Kurdistan Region's Foreign Policy Outlook"
Shwan Zulal, (Politicial Analyst & Energy
The KRG has been to trying to create an environment
conducive to investment in order to attract foreign
investment and create strong bilateral relations
leading to strengthening multilateral partnerships
with allies and neighbours that has been hostile to
the Idea of Kurdistan.
By adopting investor-friendly policies, the KRG has
managed to attract multinationals and oil Majors
leading to a rapid economic development. The policy
of looking outward has made the Kurdistan region an
attractive place for investment which earned it many
friends around the world.
Turkey has been and is the leading trading partner
and investor as Turkish companies are thought to
make up 55 percent of all the foreign companies
operating in the Kurdistan region and annual trade
is reported to be more than US$4 billion.
As more oil is discovered, Kurdistan region now has
the potential to become an important and reliable
source of energy for Turkey in particular and to the
global energy market.
The KRG has been utilizing oil to its advantage when
conducting diplomacy. Through oil, they have managed
to form alliances and lobby politicians abroad. Oil
and gas will and has been playing a leading role in
the KRG's foreign policies. For example, oil has
already been used to form alliances with Turkey.
Iraq's main revenue comes from oil, therefore it not
surprising that there is a standoff between Baghdad
and Erbil over oil policy and revenue sharing.
Baghdad wants to centralise power and have full
control over the hydrocarbon resources. Meanwhile
the KRG sees oil as a tool to enhance its autonomy
and use it as a tool to strengthen its influence in
Kurdistan region oil policy has been successful.
Attracting oil majors has been pivotal in putting
Kurdistan region on the world energy map. Kurdistan
region President likened the presence of ExxonMobil
to having 10 US military divisions, meaning an oil
giant like ExxonMobil, which represents US interest,
will act as a security buffer for the region.
Although the KRG has been rather successful and oil
policy has contributed to a successful foreign
policy, this has come at a cost of domestic policy.
While the KRG has rightly enhanced its diplomatic
influence in a challenging geopolitical environment,
domestic politics has taken a back seat. The
political parties influence still overpowers the KRG
and Parliament, which has led to a chronic mistrust
from the public and an unhealthy political rivalry.
The tense political atmosphere has led to delays in
decision-making and political polarisation
endangering the unity of purpose for the political
factions in Kurdistan, which is vital to the
survival of the region.
It is true to say that the KRG still stresses the
unity of Iraq and would want to be part of Iraq.
This pragmatic approach is multidimensional. The KRG
needs 17% of the Iraqi budget to sustain the current
economic growth and development. While the
government income is heavily reliant on oil export,
the Kurdistan region will be at a disadvantage if it
decides to go it alone and separate from Iraq at
this stage, given the infrastructure limitation.
Furthermore, there is the geopolitical dimension of
a possible Kurdish state which neighbouring
countries would object to for obvious reasons. The
KRG have been known as kingmakers in Iraq. This may
no longer be the case, but they are still very
influential. Secession from Iraq will increase
Kurdistan's reliance on Turkey for imports and
exports at the same time and make it almost a vassal
state, in which Kurdistan will lose its influence
and become a junior partner in the relationship.
Relations with Turkey
The Kurds in Iraq understand that the AKP has been
pursuing a multifaceted approach towards
transforming its relations with the Kurds in the
Kurdistan region and in Turkey through extensive
trade and investment. The KRG on the other hand has
been trying to act in parallel of this policy and
become a partner, both politically and economically.
Erbil's intention has been to use its shared
cultural and religious heritages as well as
economics, primarily in the hydrocarbon sector, to
enable it exercise a degree of influence over Turkey
by enticing Turkey with commercial interests.
And now the KRG is taking advantage of the religious
dimension of this relationship too, as Kurds and
Turks are both largely Sunni Muslims. Although not
very relevant in the past, the emerging regional
sectarianism which is playing out in Syria is making
the differences more relevant. Moreover, KRG's good
relations with Turkey is also been encouraged by the
US, for strategic region given what is happening in
relation to a Shiite Iran.
Today the relationship between Turkey and the KRG
has developed beyond anyone's imagination, reaching
its peak last year when Turkey's prime minister,
Erdoğan, visited Kurdistan region. There is a debate
about the meaning of this visit. However, to me it
is a clear vote of confidence in the KRG and
recognition that Kurdistan region does matter to
Turkey and will play a role in region. New oil trade
be it on a small scale and talks of new oil and gas
pipelines going through Turkey directly from the
Kurdistan region in spite of Baghdad's vehement
opposition, is a clear indication of the
The energy trade is an important element in the
relationship. Turkey's economy is growing rapidly
and economic growth requires energy. Turkey imports
most of its energy needs,www.ekurd.net
making it largely reliant on gas imports by
pipelines from Russia, Azerbaijan and Iran. Moreover
Turkish gas demand is set to double and the need for
diversification and new suppliers is apparent. The
Kurdistan region has the potential and the
willingness to fill the gap, hopeful that by
providing energy security and diversification to
Turkey, they would receive more political
If Kurdistan region becomes a stable source of
energy to fuel the Turkish economy, KRG seeks to
become more self-sufficient and independent while
giving Turkey a leverage when it comes to
negotiating energy deal with others. This will also
make Turkey more influential in Kurdistan region as
its income will largely depend on oil and gas
exports going through Turkey.
The KRG knows that Turkey is possibly the only
reliable, or perhaps the most reliable neighbour. If
the outstanding issues, which all culminate in the
Kurdish question in Turkey can be resolved, the
partnership could work much better.
The Kurdish question
The ongoing Kurdish issues in Turkey is one of the
main barriers in further developing the
relationship. On the one hand, the Turkish
establishment largely denies the identity-based
political rights of the Kurds; while on the other
hand, the Kurdish public is sceptical of the
intentions and motives of any Turkish government.
The KRG see its role as a mediator; persuading the
PKK to lay down their arms in return for the Turkish
government granting more political rights and
autonomy for the Kurdish population in Turkey. The
KRG also believes that Turkey has limited options
but to use the Kurds in Iraq to peacefully solve the
long-standing issue of the Kurdish population in
Turkey. At the same time, the KRG realizes the
importance of energy to Turkey and hopes that
Turkey's economic interest will override its
frivolous stance on the Kurdish question.
While the KRG has been upbeat about the prospect of
a Kurdish-Turkish partnership, they are aware that,
Turkey like any other country has its internal
politics to deal with. It also recognizes that AKP
party has made progress therefore wants to be part
of the solution. Therefore KRG's intention has been
to help the AKP party to enable it resolve the
Kurdish issues in Turkey. Not only because of the
geopolitical and security reason but because if they
don't and the political landscape changes in Turkey
in which the Kurdish issues becomes politically
unappealing for AKP to fight elections over, moving
more to the right. The result will be more violence
and only extremist voices could be heard from both
sides, jeopardizing any progress made.
Shwan Zulal, is a
political and security analyst. London &
Kurdistan/Iraq. oil and gas sector, specialising in Kurdish PSCs
and Hydrocarbon Law and advising investors in the
Kurdistan Region and Iraq with legal background.
Zulal is a regular contributing writer for ekurd.net.
He also runs a blog on to the same subject
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