In April 2013, a Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) delegation consisting of Falah Bakir, Fuad Hussein, Qubad Talabani, and Ashti Hawrami visited Washington, DC, for a series of meetings at universities and think tanks. While the KRG press release exaggerated attendance—both in terms of audience numbers and their own presence (often only one or two of the four showed up for presentations in which they all had promised to attend), the delegation was nevertheless well-received.
There is a reason for the positive reception given by the private or non-profit sector to any KRG delegation: Whereas once Kurdish politicians would come to Washington asking for money, now that Iraqi Kurdistan is oil wealthy, the situation is reversed. KRG officials regularly receive requests for cash when they travel abroad. Former American officials from both the Bush administration and President Obama's first term seek a cut of oil deals. The KRG has mastered the art of stringing oil suitors along in order to extract as many favors as possible before closing any deal. The same treatment holds true for American institutions which ask for cash. Universities offer Barzani chairs in exchange for million dollar donations but are expected to accept the children of Kurdish leaders. During the KRG's April meetings in Washington, one think tank asked Fuad Hussein, chief-of-staff to Iraqi Kurdistan President Masud Barzani, for a large donation which they suggested would further programming sympathetic to Kurdistan and its energy industry. Rather than say yes or no, Fuad Hussein suggested that the think tank hire his daughter as a summer intern, never mind that the deadline for the application had passed. The think tank made an exception and hired Fuad's daughter.
That might seem like wasta to many Iraqis, but it symbolizes a pernicious corruption that permeates Kurdish political culture and is, unfortunately, enabled by some American institutions. The daughter got the job effectively on the promise of a donation. If the KRG follows through with its donation, then Fuad effectively bought a job for his daughter not with his own money, but with KRG funds. The optics of the event play as poorly in Washington as they do in Erbil, as they reinforce the image of nepotism and corruption with which Kurdistan is now associated.
The past decade has been good to Kurdistan. Before Saddam's ouster, Kurds lived under double sanctions, first those imposed by the United Nations Security Council upon Iraq and then by the Iraqi central government against Kurdistan. Young Kurds regularly paid human smugglers to take them to Europe where, at best, they would find menial jobs and languish in public housing far away from their families and social networks. Opportunities are better in Iraqi Kurdistan now, but Kurdish universities still produce far more educated and able graduates than available jobs. Studying abroad is possible for a new generation of Kurds in a way their parents could never have dreamed, but the process remains beset by political corruption. Membership in the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) too often still trumps grades and ability.
If Kurdistan is to advance and mature, it is long past time that the KDP, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the Gorran Movement, and any other party represented in parliament agree to a code of ethics. No government official should seek personal favors while on official business nor should they trade KRG resources for family benefit. Party leaders should not seek U.S. green cards for their sons while meeting with American diplomats or intelligence officials, not should any official ask those seeking Kurdish business to hire sons and daughters first. Perhaps rather than donating KRG funds to private think tanks or to name chairs in foreign universities, the KRG might instead utilize the money to establish a scholarship fund for those who apply and are accepted to accredited foreign universities. Other funds might support internships which are often as valuable if not more so than classwork. Broadening the experience and maximizing the educational potential of Kurdish students can only benefit Kurdistan. This will only happen when codes of conduct for KRG officials prioritize serving society rather than individual families.