With trade between the Kurdistan Region and Turkey, Iran, and the rest of Iraq rising exponentially year-on-year, the local transportation network will continue to play a critical role in sustaining growth. As such, a primary task facing the KRG is the modernization, refurbishment, and expansion of the current road system to ensure the timely delivery of goods and services. The expanded passenger and freight services on offer from the Region’s two airports have also helped to further enhance Kurdistan’s already sterling reputation as both a viable and vital hub for international transportation. Moreover, with the proposed development of international rail systems, localized tram networks, and modern public transport, the sector remains a potential bright spot in the burgeoning marketplace of the Kurdistan Region.
At present, there are a total of 14,841 kilometers of roads in operation in the Kurdistan Region. The KRG Ministry of Planning (MOP) has evidently recognized the economic importance of an efficient and modern road network, and has targeted an increase in total available roads to 45,000 kilometers, as well as the construction of new bridges and tunnels. The ongoing construction along the route connecting Erbil and the Haji Omaran border crossing serves as a good example of this emphasis. This work will expand the critical road into a dual carriageway, and will utilize both tunnels and bridges to dramatically reduce driving time between the capital city and a critical cross-border point. Similarly, the MOP has prioritized the construction of three highways to connect the cities of Duhok, Erbil, and Slemani with each other, and with the neighboring countries of the Region. The completion of these projects in a timely and efficient manner will require an outlay of approximately $1.1 billion.
The rapid development of the economy has helped facilitate a booming personal transportation market. There were 200-500 vehicles utilizing major roads in 2003; today, the number for those same roads now exceeds 8,000. It is expected that figures will increase in the coming years. Indeed, global brands such as Ford, Toyota, and Hyundai have all established significant footprints in the Region, as have luxury names like Land Rover, Mercedes, Jaguar, and BMW. Luxury vehicle sales figures are reported to have grown by over 250%, indicating the demand for quality and reliability remains consistent.
Kurdistan borders Syria to the west, and has historically had one available border crossing station located at the tri-border area between Turkey, Syria, and the Kurdistan Region. This location, also known as the Fishkhabour Border Crossing, has been dramatically impacted by the instability in Syria and operates only infrequently, if at all. By contrast, the Ibrahim Khalil station (which connects Turkey and the Kurdistan Region) is perhaps the most highly trafficked point in the entire region. The location serves as the only official crossing point between the Region and its northern neighbor. As such, wait times at Ibrahim Khalil can range from 2-3 days for trucks entering the Kurdistan Region and 6-7 days for those exiting into Turkey. There are four official border-crossing locations between the Kurdistan Region and Iran: Haji Omaran connects to Piranshahr in Iran, Penjwin connects to Bashmakh, Parviz-Khan connects to Qasr-e Shirin, and Qaladiza connects to Sardasht. All four checkpoints operate regularly, and allow for the sustained movement of goods and people between the Kurdistan Region and Iran.
The availability of public transportation within the Kurdistan Region is inadequate. Therefore, taxis and privately owned/operated mini-buses are the most common forms of public transportation within Kurdistan.
The combination of increased traffic, limited route options, and a lack of safety regulations have led to a dramatic rise in the number of traffic accidents. Most notably, a report by the Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT) indicated that there were approximately 19.66 traffic-related fatalities per 100,000 people in the Kurdistan Region, a figure far higher than the US (11.0) or the UK (3.8).
In an effort to alleviate some of this strain, the KRG Ministry of Transportation has begun the planning process for the implementation of a modern bus system, which will utilize high-speed metro buses to expedite frequently blocked traffic flows.
To further combat the lack of public transportation options, the Ministry began the process for constructing tramway systems in the Region’s largest cities in early 2011. The design for the Erbil network was completed in 2012, and designs for the Slemani and Duhok systems were finalized at the end of 2013. In addition, all necessary feasibility studies have been completed, meaning the projects can now advance to the budget allocation and formal bidding stages. The details of the individual plans indicate that the three networks will have a combined length of more than 150 kilometers and will require at least $4 billion in financing.
Strategic Significance of Air Travel
The role that the airports of Kurdistan have played and will continue to play in the economic development of the Region cannot be overstated. The geographic location of the Kurdistan Region makes it an ideal transportation hub and a gateway into both greater Iraq and the Middle East in general. As such, Erbil International Airport (EIA) and Slemani International Airport (SIA) continue to see both passenger numbers and cargo volume rates increase at a consistent pace.
In 2013, approximately 1.2 million total passengers utilized EIA (a 26% increase from 2012), and 38,572 tons of total cargo passed through the facility (a 40.4% increase from 2012). The airport currently connects the Region with 30 different cities in 18 countries. Not surprisingly, 90.3% of all arrivals and departures at EIA were international. The most frequent destinations for flights from EIA were Turkey (27.5% of all flights), the UAE (16.8%), and Jordan (8.5%). In recognition of its rising passenger numbers and high standards of customer service, the Emerging Markets Airport Show in Abu Dhabi has voted EIA the best emerging market airport with less than five million passengers per annum in Africa, the Middle East, or Asia for two years in a row.
While EIA itself has done much to achieve its strong reputation, the individual services offered at the facility have also helped develop transportation in the Kurdistan Region as a whole. Dnata, one of the world’s largest air services providers, has been active on the ground at the airport since March 2010 and has helped develop a wide range of services and operations that includes customer, baggage, and ramp services, cargo handling, and ground support equipment maintenance. Another firm, Macair Flight Support, functions as the exclusive private flight support provider at EIA. The company specializes in aviation services and handling, and it was the first fixed-base operation of its kind in the Kurdistan Region. Macair provides a wide range of services, including handling operations, cleaning, detailing, security, and fueling for aircraft, as well as baggage handling, catering, hanger space, and aircraft management.
SIA has grown at similar pace, albeit on a smaller scale. Over the course of 2013, the airport welcomed over 300,000 total passengers for the first time in its history. The airport connects the Kurdistan Region to 15 airports in 12 countries and is served by 11 different airlines. Slemani Cargo Village was also inaugurated at SIA in November 2014. At the moment, AzmarAir is building Iraq’s first specialized cargo airport at SIA. The airport is planned to be the biggest one in Iraq and will take a minimum of four years to finish.
Construction at Duhok International Airport (DIA) is ongoing, with a targeted completion date in 2017. Located 25 kilometers to the west of the city of Duhok, the facility will be composed of one, 3,850-meter-long runway, in addition to multiple taxiways. Airport officials have set highly ambitious targets for DIA’s inaugural year, including 328,000 passengers, 8,700 tons of cargo, and 3,540 aircraft movements. Those numbers are expected to rise dramatically over an initial 20-year evaluation period, with goals of over 1 million passengers, 43,000 tons of cargo, and 9,840 aircraft movements annually by 2035.
The international airport in Duhok, an updated cargo facility at SIA, and the already strong shipping business at EIA hold the possibility of making the Kurdistan Region a cargo hub for the Middle East and perhaps the broader international market in the long term.