August 3, 2019 / 12:15 AM
Turkish businesses do roaring trade in Iraqi Kurdistan / Dicle Eşiyok

News that tourists from Iraqi Kurdistan had been attacked in Turkey’s northern province of Trabzon this month and deported for wearing scarves and clothes bearing emblems of Kurdistan may have given the impression of high tension between Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government that controls the Kurdish north of Iraq.

But while the very idea of a “Kurdistan” is considered offensive by many nationalist Turks, northern Iraq has become a top destination for Turkish businesses looking to get off the ground.

Some 1,800 Turkish firms do business in Iraq, the largest Middle Eastern market for Turkish construction firms and the fourth largest market for them in the world. Last year, Turkish exports worth $7 billion went to the country.

But the Kurdish region, which borders Turkey and is home to a large portion of the country’s sizable oil and gas reserves, is a special draw for Turks who wish to invest, set up new businesses, or find high paying jobs as consultants.

“The market here is unbelievable. They trade here in dollars on account of the U.S. occupation. Back home goods that you’d sell for a few cents are going for 20 or 30 dollars,” one trader said.

There are many advantages for Turks of working in northern Iraq, said a Turkish consultant working in the region.

“All that you need to get across the border is a passport: Turks simply pay for a stamp, and do not need a visa for stays of 10 days or less. The people of northern Iraq are really good folk, and they like Turks,” the consultant said, adding that visitors can feel as safe in the region as in their home country.

One investor in the textiles trade talked of the vibrant market in the region and the relative ease of making a profit by opening a store there, despite competition from local wholesalers who also import from Turkey.

“They really like Turkish goods. In fact, when customers go into stores they often ask if the goods are Turkish, and a lot of the time they won’t buy if they’re not,” the investor said.

Food products from Turkey are also highly sought after in Iraqi Kurdistan, and many Turkish fruit and vegetable wholesalers sell their goods in the town of Zakho near the border, from which they are distributed around the country.

Lucrative opportunities are to be found in northern Iraq, according to one young businessman looking to market Turkish manufactured goods in the region.

“There are a considerable number of Turks there. While I was there one (Turkish) vehicle company was opening a showroom. Then there was a friend from Bursa in the textile business who was quite happy with the store he’d opened there”, he said.

Another of the advantages of trading in northern Iraq, he said, was that customers paid in cash.

Those opportunities are also open to Turks who wish to move to the region to take up a salaried position, like the advertising consultant from Istanbul who has found wages in the northern Iraqi capital, Erbil, that he could barely have dreamed of back home.

“My impressions of the place are very positive. You can trust people to keep to their word here and you get paid as soon as the job is complete,” he said.

While the cost of living is high compared to Istanbul, the wages on offer more than make up for it, said the advertiser.

“I’d been working away for nearly five years in Istanbul and had barely made any progress. Now I’m very comfortable here,” he said.

So strong is the allure of trading with the Kurdish region that businesses located as far away as Tekirdag province in the northwest tip of Turkey aspire to sell their goods there.

A businessman at a hardware firm talked about his desire to start what he believes would be a lucrative trade. “We want to make cash sales of construction and hardware goods from Tekirdağ in northern Iraq. We’re hoping to make contact with someone who is based there or who travels there regularly for business,” he said.

Producers of sweets and hazelnuts in the west of Turkey spoke of similar ambitions.

Some of Turkey’s largest businesses with links to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government have already been making large investments in the region.

Turkish construction giant Cengiz was part of the project to build Erbil’s international airport, and a long list of large firms including AGE and ENKA have been involved in high value projects including airports, refineries, roads, office blocks and a university campus.

With Turkey’s own economy facing difficult times over the past year, the roaring trade with Iraqi Kurdistan may prove to be a godsend for enterprising Turks who are willing to set up shop across the border.

Ahval

Reporter’s code: 50101