In the wake of the media attention on northern Iraq’s disputed territories, one must not forget an increasingly influential issue that is deepening the rift between semi-autonomous Kurdistan in Northern Iraq and the central government in Baghdad. Kurdistan sits on massive oil reserves – over 45 billion barrels of high quality oil – that have the potential to generate immense profits, and the world’s largest and most influential oil companies are vying for their share.
Scientists and scholars have called Kurdistan the “last frontier for onshore oil.” However, in light of the oil and gas boom around the world, such claims may prove to be exaggerated, for there are likely a number of “last frontiers,” but hyperboles are not to negate the importance of the oil reserves sitting beneath this thriving, albeit tumultuous, region.
Conflict, red tape, and separatist issues are presently hindering the production and export of these massive reserves. The central Iraqi government claims that all contracts not authorized by the Iraqi oil ministry are considered unconstitutional and provocative. The Kurds, however, have continued to engage in unilateral contracts with oil companies to explore for and export oil. The central government has been hampering these “illegal” oil contracts by withholding permits and billions of dollars owed to foreign oil companies, while threatening to bar any oil company that signs these “illegal” contracts from deals in central and southern Iraq.
Nevertheless oil giants like ExxonMobil, Chevron, Total, and Gazprom are not afraid of contracts with the Kurds, despite the possibility of being blacklisted. In the rest of Iraq, the oil companies receive a pre-arranged profit (per barrel) despite its global cost, requiring these companies to cede much of the profit of oil extraction and exportation to the central government (which, in all fairness, is not unlike most oil deals between oil companies and developing countries). However, it is likely that oil companies may receive a better deal with the Kurds than the Iraqi central government and may see profits far better than the $3 to $5 per barrel that they yield from Iraqi oil. Additionally, central and southern Iraq is plagued by shoddy infrastructure and security risks. Kurdistan on the other hand has stronger infrastructure and rule of law, and is far more developed economically and politically than the rest of the war-torn country.
And now Abu Dhabi has joined the race for oil production in northern Iraq. Last week, the state-owned Abu Dhabi National Energy Company (TAQA) publicized its latest venture into Kurdistan. It purchased a 53.2 percent stake in an oil block in Atrush, Kurdistan. While the contracts are purely for exploration, for now, many specialists have predicted an abundant supply, and exploration will more than likely lead to extraction.
TAQA, and by extension, Abu Dhabi, has ambitious international plans and is seeking to expand its portfolio in the Middle East and North Africa region, making Kurdistan an obvious next “frontier.” Its latest deal is not Abu Dhabi’s first foray into the depths of Kurdistan. In June 2011, the Austrian oil company OMV, partly owned by Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth fund, struck oil in Kurdistan, and in April, TAQA purchased fifty percent of a large power plant run by Mass Global Investment Company, which owns a number of power assets in Kurdistan.
For Abu Dhabi, exploration into Kurdistan is essential for proving that the UAE is a major Middle Eastern power in the oil industry, potentially a larger player than Saudi Arabia and its Saudi Aramco, which relies purely on indigenous reserves, and Qatar, who is turning almost exclusively to natural gas. Exploration contracts, which have thus far proved extremely successful, in what could possibly be the Middle East’s last oil frontier, means that Abu Dhabi and the UAE will have a unique edge in the region’s oil and gas sector. Expanding further into the Middle East, and away from investments purely in the United States and Europe, will market Abu Dhabi and its oil company as an experienced and global energy producer. Moreover Abu Dhabi can take advantage of regional bias in its contracts with the Kurds.
But what are the diplomatic and political ramifications of these slightly controversial investments?
Kurdistan’s oil boom is providing the semi-autonomous region with economic weaponry against the central government in its struggle for self-determination. Many political analysts think that Kurdistan’s oil boom is its path to independence or, at least, greater autonomy. Engaging in contracts with Kurdistan without the explicit permission of the central government can be seen as an indirect support for the region’s independence.
Both Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been rumored to have armed the Kurds in their struggle against the Iraqi central government, most likely in efforts to minimize Iran’s influence in the region. Therefore, Qatar and Saudi Arabia could profit politically from investing in Kurdistan.
Abu Dhabi, however, is far less likely to engage in international politics than its more ambitious (dare I say, power-hungry) neighbors. The UAE has developed a unique global brand as investment-savvy global business centers. Their decision to venture into Kurdistan may drag them into a political quarrel for which they are not prepared and hardly interested in. TAQA and Abu Dhabi leaders may find that it will be more prudent to expand its portfolio to new frontiers in North and East Africa where oil exploration is also thriving rather than allowing their oil revenues to be entangled in Iraq’s political issues.