Kurdistan’s Oil: Transparent in English and Secretive in Kurdish

November 27, 2011

One of the most interesting ministries in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is the Ministry of Natural Resources. It’s one of the most talked about ministries in the western media, as well as by Baghdad and the thriving international companies working in or scoping out the region.

The ministry is tasked with developing a new industry in the region and attracting foreign investment which will place Kurdistan on the world map. A task of this magnitude is certainly not popular in Baghdad, nor among neighboring countries which always wanted Kurdistan to be the backwater of Iraq.

Every step the ministry takes seems to be met with more criticism than praise, even though they maintain they are acting with the best of intentions.

Last month, the KRG signed a very large deal with the world’s largest company, ExxonMobil. An important oil and gas conference was held in Erbil that included many of the world’s leading players in the industry.

The ministry keeps coming under attack from various sides. As always, Baghdad is at the forefront, and then there are the various opposition groups. Last but not least, there’s the media and the Kurdish public.

One of the main criticisms the ministry has faced is the secretive nature of its deals. The ExxonMobil deal, for example, was revealed to the Financial Times by an advisor while responding to a statement by a junior official from Baghdad’s Oil Ministry.

The ministry’s officials claim they have to keep these deals secret because “if Baghdad knew about them, they would spoil them.” This point might be valid if it was clear that an agreement over the hydrocarbon law was not within reach.

While this may be understandable, the ministry is never officially clear on the reasons for this secrecy, nor does it seem to seek a public mandate for the work it conducts.

Many KRG MPs say they don’t know anything about the oil sector’s development, and Kurdistan’s journalists say the same. In fact, there does not seem to be any channel of communication between the ministry and the public.

This ministry, which is supposed to bring modernity and progress to the region, doesn’t have its own website, leave alone a presence in the digital world. The ministry puts all its statements on the KRG’s website along with the rest of the government’s news. As a result, the information and news from the ministry is given to the public by others.

I asked a Kurdish journalist about his sources for information and news on Kurdistan’s oil from Reuters and the Financial Times. Most of the literature and documents issued by the ministry are in English. One wonders what source journalists and citizens who only speak Kurdish use for information on Kurdistan’s oil!

Every so often, reports of the black market, smuggling and theft of oil comes out in the Kurdish press but the reality of many of these stories is unknown.

As things stand, the ministry is doing its own thing and the public is unaware of what is going on with their oil. An observer who is trying to make sense of the oil industry in Kurdistan said, “It seems as if the ministry is loyal to the international companies and as a result provides them with all the information they need. The owners of the oil — the Kurdish public — have no clue.”

In the ministry’s work, two things are missing and are badly needed: Engaging the public and being more transparent. Guaranteeing the free flow of information is key, as is keeping the media abreast of what is happening.

The way things are, and as a result of the disconnect between the ministry and the public, the perception is that the ministry is doing something illegal and trying to hide it; it isn’t capable; or it doesn’t care about the public.

It is up to the ministry to change this.

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