The capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, Erbil (Hawler in Kurdish), with its 1.5 million residents, plus a large number of Syrian refugees and displaced persons from the nearby Mosul region, have been going through a development boom since 2003, a date that marks the end of Saddam Hussein’s regime. It forms a concentric zone agglomeration centered around a citadel recently designated a World Heritage Site (2014). This rapid expansion was interrupted in 2014 by the decrease in oil prices and the offensive by Islamic State/Daesh at the doorstep of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
Accompanied by the artist Valérie Jouve, we crossed the Kurdish city’s diverse territories during two visits to the city: in September 2016 and then in May 2017. Combining our different perspectives (anthropological and photographic) gave us an original approach at this capital, located between Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq (see fig. 1), and exposed to multiple influences that shaped its history and present. From a macro-regional perspective, Erbil’s pivotal location is both a strength and a weakness, experiencing frequent geopolitical and economic upheavals. This article narrates its history, from its arduous birth to a “Dubaization” undermined by war and crisis.
[Figure 1: Erbil, a regional crossroads]
A History Between Persecutions and Emancipation
At a commercial crossroads, Erbil was politically only a secondary town in the province (vilayet) of Mosul during the Ottoman period (16th-20th centuries). At the heart of a fertile plain, it was a small, prosperous and cosmopolitan city of a few thousand inhabitants, with a diverse mixture of ethnicities, languages and religions. Thus, after the Kurdish majority came a myriad of minorities: Arabs, Assyrians, Turkmens, Armenians, Jews, etc. This diverse population lived in the citadel, and in the immediate periphery spreading at its feet, as well as in the Christian fief of Ankawa, a neighboring town that is today one of the city’s suburbs. Erbil, like other Iraqi towns, went through a period of modernization in the 20th century. The region had enjoyed political autonomy when Iraq was created in 1926. The Baathist regime enhanced this status in 1970. It elevated the city to the rank of capital of the autonomous region, and endowed it with a puppet parliament under the sway of the central Iraqi authorities of the Baath party, an ardent supporter of pan-Arabism. But this lasted only four years before the Baathist regime renewed its oppression of the Kurds, particularly in the countryside where many villages were destroyed, pushed its habitants into exodus. These forced displacements fed the growing cities of Iraqi Kurdistan. Erbil grew from 500 000 inhabitants in 1979 to one million in the late 1990s. The mass killings perpetrated by Saddam Hussein at the end of the first Iraq War targeted particularly the Kurds , after an attempted uprising in the spring of 1991. They nevertheless achieved de facto autonomy in 1992, though marked by internal struggles between the two main political forces (the Kurdistan Democratic Party/KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan/PUK), which almost resulted in civil war in the mid-1990s. These clashes reflected the rivalry between the two main cities, Erbil (KDP) and Souleymaniye (PUK), the short-lived capital of Iraqi Kurdistan between 1922 and 1924, of comparative size to Erbil but with a deeper-rooted urban tradition (Pieri, 2015). These conflicts came to an end by an intra-regional partition agreement in 1997. After the second Iraq War, the Kurdish region finally liberated itself, acceding to a form of international recognition under supervision by the American administration, which keeps a military base near Erbil. In 2005, elections were held in line with the new Iraqi Constitution. They resulted in a KDP victory with Massoud Barzani as its president. That same year, an international airport was inaugurated in the Kurdish capital, marking the beginning of a decade of economic prosperity.
An oasis of relative peace and stability in an unstable environment, it was not long before the Kurdish Region of Iraq began to attract investors, especially to its capital city. During the period 2004-2012, the GDP growth of this “semi-State” (Natali, 2010) soared to 12 percent per year, before falling to 8 percent in 2012-2014. This rentier economy, buoyed by its oil and gas resources, saw massive expansion in the construction sector. Drawn by the profits to be gained in this new Middle-Eastern Eldorado angling to become a new Dubai, national and companies principally from three nearby countries became key actors in this gold rush decade: mostly Turkish (45 percent of foreign direct investments registered in late 2016), and then Iranian (11 percent), but also Lebanese (5,5 percent). Although the neighboring states of Turkey and Iran have sizable Kurdish minorities, this population is far from holding a monopoly over business in the Kurdish Region of Iraq. The Lebanese, for their part, attempt to put their international experience to good use by acting as an “intermediary minority” (Deschamps, 2017).
An Arrested Impetus
From 2014, three events slowed the momentum of Erbil’s dynamic economy (De Weawer, 2016). The central Iraqi government ceased to allocate 17 percent of the federal budget (77 percent of the KRG’s revenues) to the government of the autonomous region of Kurdistan. This decision can be traced back to the question of oil, which the Kurds hoped to export without passing through Bagdad. A 50 percent drop in crude oil prices that same year worsened the autonomous government’s financial situation, impacting its ability to ensure payment of its civil servants’ salaries, and to afford oil and infrastructure investments. Finally, in June 2014, the Islamic State took Mosul, and became a direct threat to Erbil. This in turn led to the flight of much of the city’s foreign capital and economic actors, and the arrival en masse of refugees who added further burden on the Kurdish region’s economy. This multi-faceted crisis led to a decrease in revenues and in household consumption, and a crash in transactions (that fell by 80 percent in 2015) and property prices, as well as the near-total disappearance of a nascent international tourist industry. Payment defaults multiplied, impacting construction entrepreneurs and the foreign oil companies. Poverty rates increased from 3 to 12 percent in just a few months. The crash was brutal, with immediate consequences on the development of Erbil: unfinished roads; abandonment of large-scale building developments, like the one started in 2013 by the Emaar group, the Dubai holding company, number one in the Middle-Eastern property sector, expected to build 550,000 sq. m. of residential high-rises, offices, hotels, and shopping centers, as well as restoration projects for the historic areas abandoned despite being cleared of their populations in advance slackening in the development of the Arbat industrial zone, etc.
This long history, and the city’s rapid but brief growth, followed by a sudden change in fortune, have created contrasting urban landscapes in the Kurdish capital. The scars of recent transformations mark the radio-concentric structure, which had been slowly taking shape since the 1930s. But the vitality of commercial activities is also proof of the city’s resilience. Erbil has long borne the typical markers of an Iraqi city, with a predominance of brick and low-rises. Reinforced concrete, aluminum and opaque glass are now much more common. Although the majority of the city is still made up of low-rise buildings, skyscrapers have multiplied, in more or less coherent groupings, rising above disparate urban spaces. Traditional housing downtown, like Khanqah or Ta’jil (the old Jewish quarter), derelict, its earthen walls slowly crumble away. The bazars spread out at the foot of the citadel have recently been renovated. Commercial streets are packed with stalls and busy with shoppers. Centuries-old cemeteries, districts of mismatched villas with little gardens are neighboring globalized compounds filled with hundreds of identical houses, and shopping malls. Moving away from the old town, the conurbation, structured by a system of ring-roads, becomes roomier and spreads out in the vast open space of the plains. Motorized traffic, very dense in the central areas, becomes more fluid, and pedestrians become rarer. The gaps hollow out as we draw closer to the new frontiers of urbanization. On its urban fringes, the city appears to be falling apart and disintegrating. Here and there stand the isolated cadavers of high-rises, exposed to the winds. These vertical shipwrecks, the modern ruins of abandoned projects, stand alongside unfinished or uninhabited villas, gated communities halted in their tracks by the 2014 crisis. Erbil appears as if suspended in a dream of modernity that almost came true…
Three Urban Zoomings
In our urban explorations, from the outskirts to the old town, we identified three types of urban spaces characteristic of the city’s development: commercial spaces, profuse and inclusive; gated communities, enclosed and exclusive; and refugee camps and squats, marginal urban spaces.
Commercial spaces: Spreading out to the south of the citadel, the bazars of Qaysari still constitute the city center’s principal concentration of commerce, attracting a sizeable local and regional client-base. The city’s historic center also has several food and specialized markets, for example between Mustawfi and Khanqah, old districts to the east of the citadel, where vendors of furniture, air-conditioning and household appliances can be found (figure 2). However, market activities, often grouped by specialty, spread well beyond this traditional commercial perimeter and line almost all of Erbil’s main arteries. This proliferation of activities and of popular commercial spaces, associated with forms of consumption adapted to the living standards of the majority of the population, are the product of a dynamic economy spurred by local and regional demands. After 2009, another commercial and consumption model developed with the multiplication of shopping malls: Downtown, Family Mall, Majidi Mall, Mega Mall, Royal Mall, etc. There are about fifteen of them, of varying sizes (up to 150,000 sq. m.), built with the ambition of attracting international brands and operators. However, apart from a few groups like the French multinational retailer Carrefour, the large operators of globalized commerce are absent. There is a wide gap between what these vast commercial structures were intended for, built to be part of a globalized economic system, and occupied essentially by local retailers and Turkish chains. Some malls – like the luxurious Downtown, close to the citadel, with two stories of marble galleries decorated with statues and Mesopotamian-style columns – have ended up opening their doors to a form of “discount” commerce: small vendors fill the alleys, blurring the line between mall and street commerce. Finally, in some shopping centers, partially abandoned like the Nishtiman Bazaar built between 2002 and 2007, or left unfinished like some buildings on the outskirts, live refugee families who have transformed the empty shops into makeshift lodgings.
[Figure 2: Covered market in the city center. Image by Thierry Boissière]
Gated communities: West and north-west of Erbil, toward the international airport, a large zone of business centers, grouped villas and high-class apartments has developed: Dream City, American Village, Italian Village, English Village, German Village, Empire World, Park View Residences, Naz City, Royal City, etc. (figure 3). Surrounded by walls, protected by guards and surveillance cameras, these gilded enclaves provide a whole range of services often grouped by specialty to a small local and foreign elite and allow them to live according to international standards. This compound phenomenon is telling, in Erbil as elsewhere, of an increasing segmentation of the urban space. In stark contrast with these privileged living conditions, the rest of the city, and more specifically the areas to the east and south (Mamzawa, Kuran, Kurdistan, Kasnazan Shawase, Pirzen, Bnaslawa), suffer from under-investment in terms of public services and access to urban networks (water, electricity, transport, roads). In these sectors, slums and informal housing districts have developed.
[Figure 3: Gated communities and towers - Image by Thierry Boissière]
Refugee and Displaced Persons Camps: The number of Syrian refugees from the Qamishli region, and of Iraqi, Christian, Shia and Sunni displaced persons, who fled Daesh as it advanced across the Nineveh Plains, as well as and fighting in Mosul, has grown steadily in the autonomous region, with some camps overloaded. In Erbil itself, their presence takes different forms, from the informal to the formal, from the city center to the wider outskirts. There are makeshift camps of Christian families from Qaraqosh, or Yezidis from Sinjar living in abandoned houses or abandoned shopping centers. In the northern suburbs of Erbil, there are small camps of corrugated iron and canvas dwellings managed by the UNHCR and the Barzani Charity Fondation (BCF); organized in regular lines, surrounded by wire mesh: they house between 300 (Harsham) and 1,200 families (Ankawa 2, Ankawa Mall, Baharka) of Sunnis and Shias, Christians and Yezidis. Finally, about forty kilometres from Erbil, to the north (Kawergost and Darashakran) and the south (Qushtapa) are large camps of 13,000 to 20,000 people, also managed by the UNHCR and the BCF, that take on Syrians (Kurds from Qamishli) and displaced Iraqis. Erbil and its region acts, as best it can, as a refuge city.
The referendum on the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan, held on September 25th, 2017, contributed to destabilizing the fragile national/regional geopolitical balance that Erbil had more or less succeeded in maintaining up until that point, further quashing hopes of an economic recovery for the Kurdish city that had dreamed not long ago of becoming a new Dubai.
[This is the slightly revised translation (by Andromeda Tait, thanks to the support of IFPO) of an article published in Urbanisme, n°406, 2017, pp.16-21.]
Dimitri Deschamps, “Economie politique kurdo-irakienne et activisme économique libanais : mise en contexte d’une collaboration opportuniste”, Anatoli review, no. 8, (Sept. 2017).
Mark DeWeaver, “Kurdistan’s Great Recession: From Boom to Bust in the Rentier Economy”, in IRIS Iraq Report (Sulaimani, American University of Iraq, 2016).
Denise Natali, The Kurdish Quasi-State: Development and Dependency in Post-Gulf War Iraq (Syracuse, Syracuse University Press, 2010).
Caecilia Pieri, “Villes du Kurdistan d’Irak : un creuset d’histoires et d’identités”, Moyen-Orient, no. 26 (2015), 34-39.
 We would like to thank the team at the French Institute for the Near East (IFPO), directed at the time by Boris James, as well as the Institut Français and its director at the time, Jany Bourdais, who were at the photography exhibition by Valérie Jouve “Arpenter et exposer la ville : Erbil” [“Striding and exhibiting the City : : Erbil”] (18-31 May 2017).
 Our thanks to Mahmood Khayat, architect and director of the Architecture Department at Salahaddin University in Erbil, for his insights into the urban development of Erbil.
 231 000 Syrian refugees registered in 2016.
 According to the IOM (http://iomiraq.net/issues-focus/iraq-idp-crisis), there were 3 million displaced Iraqis in Iraq in 2017. 1.8 million lived in “private” lodgings (Iraqi families, rentals), 680 000 in camps and 470 000 in makeshift and informal shelters.