Northern Iraq’s budding Chinatown

As foreign investment increases in Iraqi Kurdistan, cultural boundaries are being broken.

Iraq - Chinese man in market Sulaymaniyah
There are several hundred Chinese in Sulaimaniyah, where traditional Kurdish life is still the norm [Rhodri Davies] 

While Ling Ling stacks hot and spicy prawn crackers and dried black beans with ginger onto the shelves of, to her, a familiar looking Chinese market, her wider surroundings of northern Iraq are more foreign.

Ling, from Anhui province in eastern China, has been managing the shop there for about six months after responding to a newspaper advertisement by a Chinese firm.

She plans to stay for a few more years to take a share of what she sees as the nascent economic potential of the northern semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan.

“I came to do business here. I think people are not very clever here. They need people to come with good idea to sell things here,” Ling, 34, said.

“So I can help people here and they can help me.”

The Chinese market is in the newly opened Kawa Mall in Sulaimaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan’s second city. Chinese people, outlets and a restaurant dominate the top two floors, which are reserved for firms from the world’s second biggest economy, of the Kurdish-owned shopping centre.

With her husband, mother and sister also in the city, Ling has felt comfortable enough to move from living among the Chinese community to living within a Kurdish one.

Foreign attraction


Chinatown’s avant-garde in northern Iraq: Chinese people talk about working and living in Sulaimaniyah

This video is best viewed in full screen.


“I want some touch with Kurdi people. They have some good idea. They know what job is good, what business is good. We want to know that,” she said.

The majority of the approximately 500 Chinese in Sulaimaniyah, which has a municipal population of about 750,000, work in the mall. Chinese flags, lucky cats and paper lanterns make for an incongruous sight as locals in the widely pleated trousers, flayed suit jackets and turbans of Iraqi Kurdistan pass by.

Statues of two dragons have been placed at the main entrance looking out towards the neighbouring mosque, traditional souq and street sellers.

Foreign investment is increasing in Iraqi Kurdistan. More than half of the 1,170 foreign firms investing there are Turkish, working in areas such as construction. Multinational firms are monitoring development of the area’s 43.7 billion barrels of proven oil and 25.5 billion barrels of potential reserves.

Funds from abroad are also making their way into retail in an attempt to exploit the consumer potential of the 4.7 million strong local population, of which more than half are under the age of 20.

International investment surpassed $14bn from mid-2006 to September 2010, unconfirmed official sources have said.

Iraqi Kurdistan has had limited autonomy since 1991, due to a no-fly zone placed over it by international powers after attacks by Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime.

The region was also relatively unscathed by the subsequent war with the US that decimated the centre and south of the county. However, the proximity to Saddam’s Iraq and the recent conflict has left it poor, lacking in infrastructure and skills.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is hoping the estimated 250,000 to 300,000 foreigners it has so far attracted to the region will help to enervate some of those deficiencies.

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The passing of new immigration and investment legislation in the KRG and federally has encouraged foreign investment.

There is no initial visa requirement for visitors and businesspeople in the KRG and foreign businesses are permitted the same rights as their domestic counterparts, permitting them full ownership of properties and activities. This is in addition to entitlements to 10-year tax breaks and the freedom to repatriate all capital.

Fryad Rwandzi, a member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and a former representative in the national parliament in the capital Baghdad, said: “The local parliament adopted a law called the investment law [in July 2006] and this is attracting a lot of companies and countries to come to Kurdistan and invest.

“The law is protecting investors very well and is giving opportunities to them to invest.

“From Turkey and Iran, the Emirates, Lebanon, Egypt. Now many companies from Italy, Germany, Korea, have come to Kurdistan to invest.”

Commercial air links have also proliferated to the Middle East and Europe, where many Iraqi Kurds have emigrated.

These changes have been a big move forward for Iraq which has previously known little immigration or foreign investment, not only during 21 years of Saddam’s rule but previously under the country’s monarchy.

Rwandzi said: “When we adopted the immigration law many politicians could not understand what is going on or why we should adopt this law.

“We said that globalisation is going on and many people come to Baghdad or other parts of Iraq and they might stay. Therefore we have to create a good ground for them to stay.”

Difficult early trading

Yet, life with regular electricity blackouts and military checkpoints between towns in the KRG is not easy. Unemployment is at 14 per cent.

“People like nice things here, but they don’t want to pay too much money. That is the problem,” Ling said.

“Business has been okay,” she added. “I think that I will stay maybe two more years.”

However, other shop managers in Kawa Mall did not have such a positive take on trade there.

Andy Liu, a 31-year-old from Hunan province, said the lack of wealth in the local economy was putting his business under strain.

“Maybe after six months I will quit. Business is very bad. In one day I pay $150 for everything but I only sell $100 to $200 worth.”

Additionally, working hours can be long and integration into a country without any precedent for immigration is difficult.

“We work in the morning 9.30am to 10pm. After we go home. We don’t spend time with Kurdi people. Only go home, cooking, playing computer, watching TV. Very boring,” Liu said.

Ling also finds little time to mix with locals.

“In China I have a lot of free time. I can do what I want. I have very nice food and shopping. But here nothing. Just work,” she said, laughing.

Of those locals she interacts with, Ling said: “Some people are very good, very friendly. But some are very bad. They cheat people and steal. But I think that a lot of people are nice and very friendly. They agree with people from other countries.”

Embryonic integration

There has been little immigration to northern
Iraq in the past [Rhodri Davies]

There is no office to aid legal or illegal immigrants and no government programmes to help integrate locals and foreigners.

Sareng Aziz, a lecturer in sociology at Sulaimaniyah University, said that foreigners can help to strengthen the region in the areas where it is weak, such as corruption and employee rights. She also believes they will help to promote harmonious living among different ethnicities.

“The Iraqi or Kurdish people have to learn to live in a multi-cultural society and accept other norms and values. There are many other people living with other habits, traditions, norms and values and this is very important.

“Because most people can’t travel outside of the country so this is very important for them to see other cultures.”

Aziz also asserts that the initiative has political implications during this period of change for the country.

“This is the first time that the doors are opening for the foreigners. Sometimes we hear about some cultural shock but I think that this is a very great opportunity for us to accept others. This is the beginning of living in a democracy. To accept the other and the difference.”

In fact, northern Iraq has traditionally been home to numerous religious and cultural groups – different sects of Sunni and Shia Islam, Yazidis, Armenians, Jews and Christian Assyrians and Chaldeans – although tensions have also been present historically.

Iraqi testbed

Rwandzi said that the KRG’s culture is open and lacks “the hardline parts of Islamic society”.

“People in Kurdistan deal with immigrants with a very open mind and that they are part of society. Therefore, I don’t think that they have any problem coming to Kurdistan and mixing,” he said.

“In [the KRG capital] Erbil as well, we have restaurants, nightclubs, singers and many people.”

The KRG is seen as a testbed for Iraq as a whole. Businesses are looking at options for the country’s mineral wealth, abundant agricultural and construction potential, enterprising human capital and tourism.

The International Monetary Fund predicts GDP growth in Iraq to be 11.5 per cent for 2011, although at present conditions are generally considered too unsafe for widespread outlays.

Ling hopes that the investments made in the KRG will mean that her move there will be an economic success, and has enough faith in the region to give the process time.

“After maybe a few years here it will be a very strong country, it is a very nice country,” she said.

“Now we need more people to come here. I think more people are coming here from China all the time.

“But I think business is better here than in China. It is good for me.”

Follow Rhodri Davies on Twitter: @rhodrirdavies

Source: Al Jazeera