As visitors stay home, Iraqi Kurdistan tourism collapses

A cafe in Shaqlawah. A curfew has starved the Kurdish region of tourists. (AFP)
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Updated 27 June 2020

As visitors stay home, Iraqi Kurdistan tourism collapses

  • Last year, about 200,000 tourists visited Al-Amadiyah alone
  • Nobody came this year because of the coronavirus crisis

AL-AHMADIYA, Iraq: In a normal year, Ahmed Hazem’s mountainside restaurant would be teeming with tourists. But a nationwide curfew aimed at combating the coronavirus has starved Iraq’s Kurdish region of visitors.

“Everything is empty. With the roads cut, not a single tourist can even get here,” said Hazem, whose restaurant is a collection of red tables and chairs on terraces cut out of the mountainside.

The tables now stand empty in the early summer sun among the babbling rivulets of spring water that normally draw the tourists.

The nearby town of Al-Amadiyah lies in a mountainous district of the autonomous Kurdish region’s Dohuk province, which borders Turkey and Syria. This would normally be high season, with families escaping the heat of the plains to enjoy the milder weather of the northern mountains. They rent chalets or small apartments, dip into natural lakes and streams and flock to restaurants or hold their own barbecues at campsites and picnic spots.

Last year, about 200,000 tourists visited Al-Amadiyah alone, the town’s tourist chief Nazif Mohammed Ali said. But this year “no one came,” Ali lamented.

In mid-March, as the tourist season was getting under way up in Iraqi Kurdistan, the region’s three provinces announced a strict lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. One of them, Sulaimaniyah, had registered Iraq’s first coronavirus-linked death just weeks before.

Border crossings with Syria, Turkey and Iran were sealed off. Hotels and restaurants shuttered their doors and people were instructed to avoid gatherings.

The rest of Iraq soon followed suit, meaning the expected 1.7 million visitors — most of them Iraqis from the south but also including some foreign tourists — did not show up. The shutdown brought the private sector to its knees across Iraq, but the Kurdish region’s tourist sector has been particularly hard hit.

The Kurdistan Region’s Restaurant and Hotel Owners League counts 868 hotels and other lodgings that employ 8,500 people. “Their occupancy rate is zero,” the league has said. Even when restaurants do reopen, “they will only be half full” if routes from the south are still closed to would-be visitors, predicted the league’s deputy head Shaker Aziz.

The coronavirus figures have since steadily crept up with confirmed infections topping 37,000 and 1,400 deaths.

Over the past two decades, Kurdistan’s economy had been heavily reliant on the oil and gas sector, which has driven the region’s development. Authorities have been trying to diversify but the collapse of world oil prices has dealt a heavy blow.

The tourism sector formed a key part of the diversification plans, injecting about $1.5 billion into the Kurdish economy last year, said Nader Rusti, spokesman for the region’s tourism office.

The loss of most if not all of that spending comes on top of a deepening fiscal crisis that has left the public sector reeling. The regional government has failed to pay public sector workers for several months, sparking protests in cities across Kurdistan.

It also owes months of payments to international companies extracting oil and gas from the region. And it will have to cut production by 23 percent to comply with an agreement hashed out by members of the OPEC oil cartel in April to reduce excess supply to the market in a bid to shore up prices.

The region’s prime minister, Masrour Barzani, recently announced that his government was $27 billion in debt, after it was forced to take out more loans to honor its immediate obligations.

It had hoped for some economic relief from talks with the federal government over longstanding budget and oil issues.

But Baghdad is facing a similar fiscal crisis as a result of the sharp fall in oil revenues and the collapse of religious tourism, the second-largest contributor to Iraq’s economy.

So for Hazem and other stricken restaurateurs and hoteliers across the Kurdish mountains, there is no prospect of state help, as the two governments struggle to keep afloat.

INTERVIEW: Abeer Al-Fouti sees Alwaleed delivering global response to COVID-19 pandemic

Updated 11 July 2020

INTERVIEW: Abeer Al-Fouti sees Alwaleed delivering global response to COVID-19 pandemic

  • Abeer Al-Fouti explains how the philanthropic world has come together in the COVID-19 era

DUBAI: Charity begins at home, they say, but in the era of the world pandemic such a domestic-focused approach is neither desirable nor effective.

That is why several global philanthropic organisations, and big name donors, have come to the fore in the course of the COVID-19 crisis to offer financial, practical and logistics support to those people in the world whose governments do not have the means to extend assistance to their entire population.

Perhaps the best known is Bill Gates, the American entrepreneur who has pledged to give away his entire multi-billion dollar fortune to beat the virus. Other eminent entrepreneurs have also given billions in the attempt to find an elusive vaccine or effective treatment.

But Saudi Arabia has its own famous philanthropist in the shape of Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the Kingdom Holding magnate, who has for many years been dispensing charity via his organization Alwaleed Philanthropies.

Abeer Al-Fouti runs the global side of that enterprise and is convinced that only a global approach will work in the face of the biggest health challenge for nearly a century.

“The simple message is that actually COVID-19, despite all the challenges, whether economic, or emotional or health or luck, has one important lesson that we have all learned, or should learn: That we are one world, we are one.

“If you think selfishly, it is going to come back and haunt you anyway. So this is the time when we all need to come together and think we are one. Otherwise, we are all going to go down together,” she told Arab News.

As one of the ambitious young women coming to prominence as part of the Vision 2030 strategy of female empowerment, she obviously takes great pride in her work.

“This year we’re celebrating 40 years of our existence. If I can summarize it in numbers, we’ve been working for four decades in six continents, serving 200 countries with 355 global partners. We’ve finished 1,000 projects and spent over $4 billion, and we reached one billion beneficiaries across the world. That’s our latest update. And it’s all run by 10 Saudi females from Riyadh,” she said.

Alwaleed Philanthropies plays a major role in charitable giving within the Kingdom, supporting organizations and individuals across the spectrum of community development, health, education and empowerment. But Al-Fouti’s responsibilities are more global.

“I believe philanthropy pays a major role in filling the gap, with a regional platform bringing the government and private sector together, and focusing on those who maybe the system does not serve or does not cover. This is why His Royal Highness called us together, to do our research and then to explain who we think we should support,” she said.

“We decided to focus on those that were most vulnerable in the Arab world, in the Middle East and Africa,” she said.

Fighting the pandemic has been the main focus for the organization since the virus broke on the world earlier this year. In April, Alwaleed Philanthropies gave an extra $20 million to provide medical and economic help to poorer countries during the pandemic, bringing its total COVID-19 support to $30 million, on top of its usual budget.

“In these times of unprecedented crisis it is more important now than ever that we pull our resources together in the battle against COVID-19. With many developed nations struggling to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, we must spare a thought for the developing countries of Africa and the less fortunate countries in the Middle East,” Prince Alwaleed said then.

“I’m sure you know it’s in the DNA of our culture and our religion — giving and charity. Everyone is required to give as part of the culture,’ Al-Fouti added. Alwaleed’s work runs alongside an equally generous program of charitable initiatives funded by the government of Saudi Arabia for projects both within the Kingdom itself and the rest of the world.

Maintaining the international partnerships that have been cultivated over the decades is a vital part of her work. The Gates Foundation, Gavi, the vaccination organisation, the World Health Organization and the United Nations are important allies in the global sphere.

“We have criteria for selection, and mainly we want to work with partners that are credible and share common values, and those which have long-term impact, in addition to other criteria. We have a detailed list of criteria and we tick those which have compatibility, reliability and credibility. We have to ensure that the money we give will reach those in need,” she said.

Another important ally is the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, ISESCO, which has partnered with Alwaleed on many regional projects.

“We support initiatives in 200 countries, regardless of gender, race or religion — as long as they have shared values,” she explained.



Born: Alkhobar, Saudi Arabia

Education: Bachelor’s and master’s degrees in health and hospital administration, King Saud University

Career: Various roles in government and private sector in human development, management and public relations

- CEO Al-Khair

- Partner, RVCC property development

- Co-founder, Smile Productions

- Executive manager, Global initiatives, Alwaleed Philanthropies


Those initiatives fall into four main categories. Community development involves work on essential infrastructure — housing projects, employment initiatives and educational opportunities to help achieve the UN’s sustainable development goals.

Second comes empowerment initiatives for women and young people. In partnership with international institutions such as the UN, Alwaleed works to enhance opportunities for underprivileged women across the Middle East and Africa and to advance the interests of the big youthful demographic in the region. “We want people to become self-sufficient and empowered, Al-Fouti said.

For example, Alwaleed was a leading partner in the Turquoise Mountain project in Afghanistan, which sought to revive traditional craft industries in the war-ravaged country, providing employment for thousands of women and young people and helping to restore traditional buildings for use as medical and educational facilities.

Next comes disaster relief, again often in conjunction with UN organizations. Alwaleed played an active role in helping Albania to recover from the recent earthquake there, for example.

Finally, there is what Al-Fouti regards as her “favourite” work — the initiatives to “bridge cultures” through educational and cultural activities in several countries. Alwaleed is involved in projects in the Louvre in Paris and with Berlin Museum to explain Islamic culture to Europeans.

“We believe the best way for people to understand each other is through art and culture. We’re planning to work this year with all our educational centres, and with the Louvre and Berlin, to see how we can revisit this strategy and see how we can have more impactful projects in terms of bringing people together,” she said.


READ MORE: Alwaleed Philanthropies, ICESCO MoU to help 10 African countries

Prince Alwaleed pledges $30m to fight pandemic

How Louvre-Saudi Islamic cultural ties are promoting peace and tolerance


But the reaction to the pandemic has understandably taken up a lot of the organization’s time this year.

“We decide to get in and minimize or control the spread of the virus by strengthening local capabilities, for example through or work with ISESCO. In Africa they asked us to provide them with masks and with alcohol cleaning products. We decided that we were also going to go in and create or scale up factories, get jobs going and make the initiative available and sustainable, and this is what we are doing,” Al-Fouti said.

Through the collaboration with Gavi, Alwaleed has been able to bring medical relief to remote areas in the region. One of the repercussions of the pandemic has been that other essential medical projects, such as polio vaccination or routine immunization for children, have been scaled back drastically, partly because of travel restrictions but also because of the pressure on funds.

“In some places when people were being asked to stay at home, some didn’t have a home to go to. They were asked to wash their hands and they didn’t have water. That’s why we invested in areas where we thought there is a gap,” Al-Fouti explained.

So, those 10 women in Riyadh have the support and back-up of hundreds of partners around the world, with a global perspective in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis.

“We have partners and embedded collaborative relationships that we consider to be an extension of our team. So we are not alone. There is a saying ‘work smart, not hard.’ But we work hard as well. In fact, we really do work hard,” she said.