In a region consumed by violence, uncertainty and despair, Iraqi Kurdistan stands out as an oasis of stability, economic growth and a relatively acceptable level of political freedom.
Envious of their success, many Arabs have accused Iraqi Kurds of selling out to America. And while it is true that the Kurds enjoy excellent ties with Washington, Arabs should keep in mind that the Kurds had to break with their painful past in order to make themselves an indispensible ally for the United States in the region.
In Kurdish collective memory, America let them down in 1975 during their fight against Saddam Hussein. Saddam had reached out to Iran's Shah Reza Pahlavi. As relations between the two improved, the Shah, and eventually Washington, abandoned the Iraqi Kurds while Saddam shut down the operation of Iranian opposition leader Imam Ruhollah Khomeini in Najaf and sent him into exile in France.
Today's Kurdish leadership understands that in the game of nations, there is no place for grudges. As such, Iraq's Kurds have not only made friends with America, but have also reached out to historic enemies like Turkey, where they found a like-minded government in Ankara that has tailored its foreign policy to fit its economic interests. Annual trade between Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey stands at $4 billion and is expected to grow.
Domestically, Iraqi Kurdish rulers succeeded in transforming their leadership from one based on patronage networks to one based on winning the hearts and minds of their constituents through economic growth and prosperity.
And because prosperity requires good governance, the Kurdish leadership tapped native talent. Kurdish graduates from the world's finest colleges were lured back home, their experience put to government use.
Some Kurdish officials still channel public funds into their personal accounts and use the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) bureaucracy to reward their loyalists. But these same leaders have also kept such corruption to a minimum. They also cut on red tape and made the Kurdish region's environment competitively attractive to the world's biggest investors.
Security, good governance and a percentage of the revenue of 170,000 oil barrels produced in the region every day have paid off. Government expenditure is set to jump from $10 billion this year to $13 billion in 2013. Back in 2002, the region’s embryonic government had a budget of only $100 million.
The economy of the landlocked region has been growing at a rate of 12 percent, year-on-year. According to the Financial Times, per capita income has risen from $375 in 2002 to $5,500 in 2011. Electricity runs 22 hours a day. In the rest of Iraq, especially in the similarly oil-rich south, shortages are so acute that most cities only receive four hours a day.
Kurdistan's Arbil and Sulaymaniyah have also opened airports with flights to cities such as Vienna and Frankfurt and daily services to Istanbul, Dubai and Amman. In Iraq's predominantly Shia south, airports have flights mainly to Iranian cities, and service mostly religious tourism.
While Iraqi Kurdistan is still not the perfect democracy everyone aspires for, it is certainly a rising star. In 2009, Nashirvan Mustafa, a longtime lieutenant of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, broke ranks with "Mam Jalal's" Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and created his own group, Goran, or “Change.” Mustafa's faction won considerable seats in the 2009 elections as his bloc emerged as the leading opposition group inside the Kurdish parliament. In the Iraqi elections in 2010, Goran also won seats, even though it still caucuses with the bigger Barzani-Talabani bloc.
Showing maturity, the ruling Kurdish duality of Barzani and Talabani did not try to kill Mustafa or Goran, even though his growing popularity came at the expense of the two, both regionally and nationally. Instead, the Kurdish establishment expressed its respect for diversity and free speech. In September, Iraqi Kurdistan's president, Massoud Barzani, visited Mustafa for the first time.
Unlike Arab politicians, Kurdish leaders are showing a sense of purpose, pragmatism and an understanding that times have changed.
If compared to retrograde and narcissistic leaders like Iran's Ali Khaminei, Iraq's Nouri Maliki and Lebanon’s Hassan Nasrallah—who are stuck in their old ways of killing opponents, employing populist anti-Western slogans and driving their countries into the political and economic abyss—Iraqi Kurdish politicians, despite their unwarranted long tenures, look like leaders worthy of their people's respect.
Perhaps that's why pillars of the Lebanese oligarchy have taken their business to Iraqi Kurdistan. After lawmaker Walid Jumblatt and former President Amin Gemayel, Samir Geagea made a show in Arbil. Unable to convince Lebanon's de facto ruler Hassan Nasrallah of the worthiness of dropping his outdated anti-Western ideological rhetoric in favor of a pragmatic one, these Lebanese leaders seem to pin their hopes on Kurdistan. After all, in politics, it's never personal. It is only business.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington Bureau Chief of Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai