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Kurdistan: re-birth of a nation

28 November 2013 Jim Harrison,

Roger Pride writes...

Two nights ago I sat sharing a bottle of wine with two people who played a pivotal role in re-shaping the politics of the middle-east and laying the foundations for the creation of a nation. As I spoke with them I became acutely aware of the danger that talk of place branding and marketing potentially trivialised what they had already achieved and the challenge that lies ahead of them.

The place in question is Kurdistan. We talked about the future economic and tourism opportunities for their nation and as we talked I realised that we were talking about more than competitive identity. We were discussing national identity. Although Kurdistan is not a nation state there is no doubt that the Kurdish people are a nation. To be accurate, Kurdistan is an autonomous region in northern Iraq.

The Kurdistan Regional Government has shaped the nation on a model similar to Quebec in Canada. The government is stable, and under their stewardship, Kurdistan has become relatively safe. In recent years, Kurdistan and in particular Erbil has seen something of an economic boom. Some are calling Erbil the new Dubai because of the scale and speed of development. Whilst this may be stretching things just a little, there is no doubt that the expansion in recent years has been remarkable. Attracted by this stability, and significant oil reserves – estimates suggest a potential of 45 billion barrels – developers and top international brands are moving in.

Indeed, there is much to facilitate place branding: a new international airport was completed in 2010. Emirates, Turkish Airlines and Austrian Airlines and many other international airlines now fly there . International hotel brands Hyatt and Hilton are also eyeing up the region. Recently Dubai based developer Emaar Properties, decided to take their “Downtown” concept to Erbil. Downtown Dubai attracts 56 million visits a year. Downtown Erbil will span 541,000 square metres and include 15,000 residences, three five-star international hotels, 715,000 square metres of office space, the city’s largest shopping mall and numerous restaurants.

The fact that Erbil has been designated as Arab Capital of Tourism for 2014 is evidence of the ambition in the area. It’s all the more surprising that Erbil is not actually an Arab city – it’s a Kurdish city and after my visit I know now that there is a real difference.

When we talk to places about branding, we advise them on the importance of being honest, of reflecting the truth about the place. We stress the need to ensure that the people support the brand and marketing. We talk about telling the stories that make the place genuinely different in a compelling and engaging way. Our focus is often on releasing the economic and tourism potential, but sometimes as in the case of Kurdistan it goes much deeper – it’s more fundamental. It’s about nation building. And sometimes the term ‘branding’ doesn’t feel quite right.

Unfortunately most westerners will currently only associate Kurdistan with war atrocities, most notably the chemical weapon attack on Halabja in 1988. But Erbil and Kurdistan have such a rich heritage and culture - Erbil claims to be the worlds’ longest inhabited city. Its citadel is 8,000 years old and sits proudly in the heart of the city. It will take a while to build the region’s reputation for these more positive things but it appears they have the will and the resources.

Most importantly there are key people in Kurdistan who have the vision. They recognise that they need to tell their story in a compelling way. They appreciate the potential of these stories, combined with future economic success, to help bring the Kurdish people together.

The festival of Newroz has an important place in the terms of Kurdish identity for the majority of Kurds. It’s the Kurdish New Year and it talks of renewal and rebirth. It goes back thousands of years but reflects what is happening in Kurdistan today. As a place branding specialist I can’t help but see the parallel in this and to ask - could Newroz be the first of many stories which engages the world with Kurdistan?

Photo credit kurdistan 372 قائمة التحالف الكردستاني

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