[quote]ERBIL, Iraq — It is a measure of soaring Kurdish optimism that government officials here talk seriously about one day challenging Dubai as the Middle East’s main transportation and business hub. The Kurdistan Regional Government is betting that it can, investing $325 million in a modern terminal at the Erbil International Airport to handle, officials hope, millions of passengers a year, and a three-mile runway that will be big enough for the new double-decker Airbus A380.
“We’re not saying Kurdistan is heaven,” said Herish Muharam, chairman of the Kurdish government’s Board of Investment. “But we’re telling investors that Kurdistan can be that heaven.”
As the rest of Iraq has plunged into a downward spiral, Kurdistan has enjoyed relative political stability and suffered limited violence, in part owing to a sectarian and political homogeneity lacking elsewhere in the country. The Kurdish region has enjoyed de facto autonomy since 1991, when the American military established a no-flight zone there, a status formalized by the new Iraqi Constitution. Although many Kurds would prefer to secede, Kurdistan, with a population of about 4.2 million, has its own army and virtually total control of its territory.
Kurdistan’s rising fortunes have been nowhere more apparent than in the wave of building and investment that has swept the region in the past four years. Iraqis and foreigners alike have poured in billions of dollars, defiantly wagering that the region will remain relatively peaceful, even as the rest of Iraq slips deeper into civil war. Where explosions and bomb-scarred buildings have been a defining symbol elsewhere in Iraq, construction cranes are now a common feature on the Kurdish landscape, tugging hotels, shopping centers and office and housing complexes from the ground. While public infrastructure is still suffering from chronic underinvestment, the regional government has approved more than $4 billion worth of mostly private development projects since August, when the Board of Investment was created. Billions of dollars worth of other projects were already under way. Much of the money is coming from overseas, including the United States, Europe, the Persian Gulf countries, Iran and Turkey, officials say.
Last December, Austrian Airlines began twice-weekly flights between Vienna and Erbil, becoming the first European commercial airline to fly into Iraq since 2003. Taher Horami, the airport’s director general, said he is in discussion with other major international airlines on opening routes into Kurdistan.