“The changing geopolitics of the Middle East” was the complex and timely topic of the first Sulaimani Forum, which gathered more than 130 international experts, academics, politicians and journalists at the ballroom of the American University of Iraq in Sulaimani.
For an Iraqi Kurd and someone who has attended many such events around the world, the Sulaimani Forum provided the most relevant discussions on Iraq, its politics and future. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said the event, which will annually tackle the issues of the day, was infused with a “local flavor.”
The forum provided an opportunity to view the Middle East region and the world from the perspective of Iraq. The panels on the Arab Spring and Iraq’s neighbors offered good insight into the new politics of the region as a whole, of the immediate neighborhood, and their relevance to Iraq and the Kurdistan Region.
The discussion was not limited to traditional politics. The panel on “the oil dimension” provided excellent accounts of the current world energy market, noting that while the world’s energy dependency was declining, Western engagement in the region appeared on a steady course.
It was also an opportunity to look at failed examples of oil-producing countries, like Venezuela, and draw parallels with Iraq and the Kurdish Region’s oil policies.
The other eye-opening part of the forum was the future of Iraq. In looking at the new Middle East after the Arab Springs and the revolutions from regional and international perspectives, it became clear that a new Middle East is emerging. It is a Middle East of the people, and one that may not necessarily respect the state boundaries based on old international treaties and pacts. The feeling in the ballroom was that a new Middle East is being shaped, with a changed geopolitics and new demographics.
On Iraq, the composition of the audience itself, and how it was grouped together in parts of the ballroom, provided a hint at the shape of a new, future Iraq. In the back rows of the auditorium sat students of the host university itself. They were in their 20s, and will be the next leaders of Iraq and the Kurdistan Region, if granted equal opportunity to enter politics.
But here is the twist: They did not remember Saddam Hussein, did not speak Arabic and had never been to the Arab part of Iraq. A few days after the forum ended, they commemorated the 25th anniversary of Halabja – a symbol of genocide against the Kurds.
In future, this absent memory of Saddam is all they will have in common with their counterparts in the center and south of the “country.” The way things are, two new Iraqs are evolving.
The Sulaimani Forum is one of those serious attempts to explore where the students of the back rows of the ballroom will be in the future, and whether or not the two Iraqs are reconcilable.