While justified as economically infeasible, the exclusion of Kurdistan from a new Iraqi infrastructure plan is a purely political move.
In May 2023, Iraq introduced a bold infrastructure project that spans its territory, connecting the Grand Faw Port on the Arabian Gulf with Türkiye via rail and road networks. At a cost of $17 billion, the Development Road would serve as a new link between “Asia and Europe.” The scheme was the main topic of discussion at a one-day conference in Baghdad, organized by Iraqi Prime Minster Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, and attended by transport ministers and officials from the Gulf Cooperation Council, Iran, Türkiye, Syria, and Jordan.
The Development Road aims to transform transportation infrastructure in Iraq, after decades of conflict have left road and rail networks in poor condition. This has not only affected human mobility, but also has heightened the cost of trade and commerce, impeding international and regional movement of goods and services. According to the Iraqi government, the project will officially begin next year and extend in three phases until 2050. Within the first four years, the government aims to be able to move 22 million tons of bulk cargo by rail annually.
Despite these ambitious goals, the Development Road has been subject to a variety of critiques. Some analysts have argued that the project’s capabilities and scope have been overstated, pointing to the fact that the feasibility assessment was a conducted by an Italian company specializing in the energy sector, with seemingly little experience in transportation design.
One of the most glaring issues with the project, however, is its intended route. Linking Basra to Baghdad and Mosul, before proceeding to the Turkish border, the Development Road will entirely bypass the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). According to Iraqi spokesman Basem al-Awadi, topographic and economic factors dictated this decision. Due to the region’s mountainous terrain, al-Awadi suggests that a path through KRI would extend the project’s first stage timeline by two years and its budget by $3 billion, bringing the total costs to $20 billion.
In an interview for Sada, the Turkish-Iraqi researcher Mehmet Alaca argues that the exclusion of KRI is purely political. For Alaca, who previously wrote about the project, the 2017 referendum vote in KRI to secede from Iraq has pushed the central government to retaliate. Prior to the referendum, KRI maintained strong international ties through its oil companies, an anti-ISIS coalition, and strong paradiplomacy.
Since the referendum, the central government in Baghdad has moved to curb KRI’s access to the world and turn it into a mere local administrative entity. In February 2022, the Iraqi Federal Supreme Court annulled an oil and gas law passed by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in 2007, preventing KRI from exporting its natural resources. This ruling also allowed Baghdad to hold Erbil accountable for prior oil income against budgetary allotments. This was followed by the International Chamber of Commerce’s decision this past May, which affirmed that the Iraqi National Oil Company is the only entity authorized to manage oil export operations through the Turkish port of Ceyhan. Yerevan Saeed, a lecturer in political economy at the University of Kurdistan interviewed for Sada, claims that these rulings demonstrate a coordinated effort on the part of the central government to cut off Kurdistan from the outside world.
Infrastructure is always political, especially when it comes to nationwide projects. But given that the Iraqi state governs under the fear of territorial disintegration, excluding KRI from the Development Road is a risky move. Iraqi Kurds will see the project as part of a strategy of de-development—intended to marginalize and exclude the KRI—which can only lead to greater national discord. As the KRI Minister of Transport and Communication himself emphasized, “there will be no road to development [in Iraq] without Kurdistan.”
Source: Carnegie Endowment