We also wanted to examine if university education is preparing them for life after university.
It was very important for us to write this research paper for various reasons. When it comes to the Kurdish people in Iraq and the broader Middle East, the scholarship or literature tends to focus on the broader challenges of the Kurdish people in the Middle East, the geopolitical, and security issues. The Kurds are often seen from the lens of geopolitical realities in the Middle East. They are facing challenges as a result of their identity, such as not having their basic rights, not having education in their mother tongue, and having no representation in political affairs. They are oppressed, facing ethnic cleansing, and so on. And, of course, it’s not only historic because it’s also a present day reality. In our paper, however, we focus more on the micro dynamics and governance issues under Kurdish-self rule rather than the macro dynamics related to Iraq and the broader Middle East.
For example, In Iran we have seen in the last several months how in the wake of the death in custody of Jina Mahsa Amini, an Iranian Kurdish young girl who was visiting Tehran with her brother, and was stopped by the morality police and later detained for not wearing her hijab properly. Then only two days later, her family received her corpse. Her death galvanized a protest movement that people have now come to refer to as a women-led revolution, which has transcended ethnic identities as well.
In Turkey, the leader of the main pro-Kurdish People’s Party (HDP), which passed the 10% threshold in 2015, is languishing in jail. The members of that political party are facing intimidation campaigns, and some of them are again, such as elected mayors of the Kurdish provinces and towns in the southeast of Turkey are also removed and the government in Ankara has politically appointed other people to manage the affairs of those localities and provinces in Turkey.
In the case of Syria, the Kurds managed to carve out some space for de facto autonomy in the context of the Syrian civil war that began in 2011 following the Arab Spring uprisings that first started in Tunisia and then spread to other countries in the region.
The situation for the Kurds in Iraq was at some point similar to what the situation has been like for the Kurds in Syria, Turkey, and Iran – pushing for basic rights and representation.
However, the two US-led interventions in Iraq improved their situation. In the wake of the 1991 Gulf War, the Kurdish region became a de facto autonomous entity from Iraq. After the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein the region was recognised as a federal entity within Iraq. This year marks 20 years since the invasion of Iraq and the Kurds continue to be seen as the big winners of that war.
Following the invasion, decisions made in the initial phase influenced successive political developments. While Iraq drifted into chaos and civil strife, the Kurdistan region remained remarkably stable and embarked on a trajectory of peace and prosperity. The Kurds played a key role in drafting the Constitution which recognized their right of autonomy, with extensive authority over security, legislation and governance.
They were willing participants in rebuilding Iraq, benefiting from a budget share and attracting foreign investment. The region used newfound wealth from oil and other resources to fund public works and upgrade the infrastructure.
These circumstances also incentivized changes domestically as the previous two-party led enclaves started to reunify their separate administrations. The KDP-led administration in Erbil and the PUK-led administration in Sulaymaniyah unified in 2006. The Kurds began to exercise self-rule in a more institutionalised manner.
All of this has shaped the formative experiences of the young generation in the Kurdistan region. The unified administration embarked on a trajectory that shaped young people’s perspectives and formative experiences under both de facto and, more specifically, de jure autonomy in Iraq that started after 2003.
And during this time, the Kurdistan region began a period of economic boom and prosperity. However, it was a short-lived period of economic prosperity due to over reliance on oil revenues and without much consideration to diversifying the economy to ensure its sustainability in the long run.
Following 2003, the government’s policy was to offer employment in the public sector to provide opportunities for the excess labour. This policy was working until 2014, as the region experienced what can be referred to as a “golden decade.”
While in the rest of Iraq, people’s primary concern was survival due to chaos, sectarian warfare, or civil war. Kurdistan, however, was stable – and was benefitting from Saddam being gone, from being a de jure entity with a parliament and army, and having representation in Baghdad. As engineers of the new era, the Kurds were given revenue sharing from Iraq’s overall revenue, but they were also making their own revenues from the custom borders with Iran and Turkey, but also from oil sales. More and more universities were appearing across Kurdistan, producing more and more graduates. Progress was being made.
However, the government’s policy was only opening up space for economic participation for the graduates in the public sector – two-thirds of the main household income within Kurdistan is from the public sector.
And there was an expectation that because Kurdistan had replaced the impoverishment experienced during Saddam’s rule over the preceding decades – the situation would continue to get better, and could not go backwards.
However, since 2014 the system has come under stress due to the emergence of the Islamic State, plummeting oil prices, and budget cuts from Iraq. This meant the Kurdistan regional government could not deliver its promise. The government had to freeze new employments and promotions and was even struggling to pay its existing employees . It introduced harsh austerity measures – slashing salaries to one third on a so called “salary saving scheme” (which remains unknown if will ever be repaid). These measures impacted or led to the decline of the education, health sector, provision of other services, and so on. While prosperity and employment were experienced during the boom, a sustainable, future-proof plan was not made.
Since then, the labour force has continued to grow, with around 27,000 graduates entering the job market annually, but the labour market has not kept pace with that growth and even shrunk, because the government no longer has the money to keep employing graduates in the public sector, which means that there are not enough jobs for the young graduates of the region. And those with jobs are not being paid in time or in full. The private sector has remained small and unable to absorb the excess labour.
Nevertheless, despite this economic instability, the expectation from students and graduates remains. After 2003, the unspoken deal at the heart of Kurdish politics in Iraq has been that the ruling elite control the political space but, in return, they deliver a better life. This created a sense that public employment is meritocratic and eve part of the social contract. So if one worked hard and graduated from university then there would be a government job waiting for them. But this was a myth – in fact the current system is clientelist and nepotistic. Most employment has been based on patronage. This has subsequently led to the dissatisfaction and delusion among young people. Consequently, dissent and despair have been on the rise. Steady streams are also risking their lives in the pursuit of a better life abroad through illegal routes of migration.
When you look at the population, 60% are under 25 to 30 years old, so the majority of the population has no memory of Saddam Hussein. And so, there is also a divide between generations, and the rulers and the ruled (as the rulers have been ruling for the past 30 years plus) – where the older generation cannot understand the dissatisfaction from the youth: “When we were your age, we were fighting in the mountains. You are not doing that – you’re just unemployed. So, no need to complain.” But the young feel that the older generation have done nothing in the past 20 years.
The ruling elite want total independence from the rest of Iraq, but the youth think if there is no guarantee we can be fully self-sufficient, then maybe it’s better to be part of Iraq and benefit from Iraq’s oil revenues – like in the golden years. They aspire for a middle-class life.
Our sample included young research participants from different economic backgrounds, localities, and fields of education. We also included both public and private university students, with a gender balance representation. The research participants are aged between 18 to 28 years old.
The paper highlights narratives of hope and despair, but to some extent, the situation of young people in the peripheral towns of these four provinces may be worse. However, we focused on young people in the urban localities since they are the most accessible. We organised interviews and focus group discussions to gather their perspectives on the current political situation in the Kurdistan region, with a specific focus on the political situation after the referendum for independence that took place in September 2017, as well as economic and social dynamics in the region since then.
Our interviews followed a semi-structured approach, where we asked general questions followed by more specific questions. Similarly, our focus group discussions were guided by some questions, but the discussions touched on different issues according to the topics discussed among the research participants themselves. Their answers helped us to guide the discussion.
The limitation of this paper is that it mainly focuses on the urban youth who are university graduates or university students and therefore might not represent the views of young people who live in rural settings. The situation in those far-flung rural towns could even be worse, where the impacts of economic crisis have been more severe.