Kurds in Iraq up against Exxon Mobil: Can they defeat Big Oil?

The Kurds Who Once Fought Saddam Hussein Are Now Fighting Exxon Mobil

The Kurds Who Once Fought Saddam Hussein Are Now Fighting Exxon Mobil

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
June 6 2014 10:32 AM

Iraqi Kurdistan vs. Big Oil

These Kurdish villagers once fought Saddam Hussein. Now they are fighting Exxon Mobil.

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The mountains around Gullan once sheltered scores of peshmerga, Kurdish fighters, who resisted the Iraqi government. They are now home to retired fighters, who see the Kurdish flag as evidence of their success.

Photo courtesy Sebastian Meyer

“We went to talk to the oil company,” Dara Ibrahim, a 25-year-old founding member of the environmental group, told me. “We asked if a member of our group could go with the oil company. They said absolutely not.” Ibrahim was dressed in a crisp, pinstriped version of traditional Kurdish clothing; he sat straight and spoke gravely. He felt insulted by Exxon, which he thought assumed that the villagers, including the environmental group, would be ignorant of both their rights and the potential impact of drilling for oil.

Ibrahim, like many of his neighbors, has a university degree. Other villagers have recently returned from abroad, where they were asylum seekers; along with them comes expertise, perspective, and, often, money. “One of our members is an engineer,” Ibrahim told me. “The company knew that if he worked with them, he would understand what is going on.” (An Exxon representative, writing via email, assured me that the company goes through a “lengthy process of talking with local communities to understand their needs and share information.”)

Gullan is not the first Kurdish village to express frustration with a foreign oil company, but here, a fatalism that had characterized previous operations gave way to action. Locals told me they had learned from the experience of other villages, where promises of employment and wealth had been broken or proved impossible to fulfill due to budget disputes with Baghdad. For years Kurds had been told that oil was the key to their future, but in many oil-rich areas, that future remained bleak. Sometimes, as with the oft-repeated claim that seismic testing would cut off the village’s water supply, the grievances veered toward nervous gossip (which, critics say, was stoked by politics).


In 2009 Greg Muttitt, the author of Fuel on the Fire: Oil and Politics in Occupied Iraq, visited a town near Duhok, where locals were grappling with Hunt Oil. “It was the beginning of the whole rash of contracts,” he told me over the phone. “What I expected to find was some degree of prosperity from the jobs that oil drilling brought. … What I found was a community completely cut off from the oil field, which was surrounded by rings of security just outside of town. The money wasn’t going back into the town at all, and the jobs, for the most part, were going to Iraqis coming from the major cities in Kurdistan.”

Muttitt told me that the attitude among locals was “one of dejection.” They had grown used to profits from business investments in Iraqi Kurdistan going to members of the two major political parties: the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which controls the western areas, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, in the east, near Iran. “They had a pretty low view of the government’s level of interest in their welfare,” Muttitt said. “What was happening on this oil field was fairly consistent.”

Gulan Village Stops ExxonMobil from Oil Exploration
Villagers unfurl a large Kurdish flag near the festivities. Once seen as a symbol of an oppressed minority, the flag is now a proud reminder of the Kurdish struggle for freedom and autonomy in Iraq.

Photo courtesy Sebastian Meyer

Gullan was different. There, the misgivings were not easily suppressed by the promises of money or national independence. Villagers’ arguments were more philosophical. Oil, they could see, was a curse. Gullan needed to be preserved, not only for its natural beauty but also for its revolutionary history. They felt rich enough. For decades Baghdad had put Iraq’s oil wealth toward oppressing the Kurdish minority, and now they felt that their own government was doing the same. An industry analyst based in Erbil, who preferred to remain anonymous, recognized the uniqueness of Gullan’s protest. “They would rather leave it in the natural state, and if they don’t share the local benefits, they are fine with that,” he told me.

At the festival, villagers felt wary but triumphant. There had been no underground explosions, and their water supply remained intact. The protests had gotten the attention of the media, and many of the villagers were clearly energized by the new cause. Seismic testing is only one of many preparatory steps in the drilling process, but even those villagers who assumed that Exxon would return celebrated the company’s retreat, however temporary.

But a ripple of trepidation remained. Mohammed, for instance, was nervous about the document he had signed—and he wasn’t alone. Several villagers made nervous references to that agreement in conversations with me. According to Mohammed and other village leaders, Exxon did not leave behind a copy. Other than a vague description of what the document permitted—“They said that they were just here to explore”—the villagers could not recall the exact terms of the agreement. Just two facts are known for sure: The mountains have oil, and Exxon has a contract from the Kurdistan Regional Government.

A few days after I visited Gullan, I met with a Kurdish government spokesman, Safeen Dizayee, in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Dizayee was aware of the protests, and understood that many Kurds were unhappy with the impact oil exploration had on their lives. He urged the villagers to be patient. “Once we start to export oil—with or without an agreement with Baghdad—and we start to really develop, then people will see,” he said. “Right now, everything is just rumors.”

Like villagers in Gullan, Dizayee spoke in revolutionary terms about independence from Baghdad; even as a high-level government official, Dizayee’s own history is one with the rebellious history of Iraqi Kurdistan, and he represents a government headed by revolutionary leaders or their families. It is an irony of the modern struggle for a free Kurdistan that it requires the government to assert its authority over the same villagers, like Mohammed, who fought against Hussein’s army in the streets. Those villagers, Dizayee explained, could not determine alone what happens to Gullan. “With most land contracts, there is no total ownership,” he told me. “The state has the right to work on the land.”

Jenna Krajeski is a writer based in Istanbul. Reporting for this article was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.