Why Baghdad's new visa system could emulate Iraqi Kurdistan's success

Why Baghdad's new visa system could emulate Iraqi Kurdistan's success
In-depth: Baghdad once sought to abolish the KRG's comparably liberal visa system. Now, new reforms will make it easier for foreign visitors to get an Iraqi visa on arrival.
6 min read
06 April, 2021
Baghdad has repeatedly sought to realise its tourism potential. [Getty]
A few years ago, Baghdad's central government sought to abolish the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government's (KRG) comparably liberal visa system.

Today, it is taking a page out of the KRG's book with reforms that will make it easier for foreign visitors to get an Iraqi visa

On 15 March, 2021, the Iraqi government announced it would issue visas on arrival to all citizens from the permanent five members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), European Union (EU) countries, along with Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Japan, and South Korea. 

"Citizens of these countries will be able to pay to obtain a visa on arrival at Iraq's airports and land and sea border crossings," read the Iraqi government statement announcing the policy change. The fee is believed to be minor, approximately $75.

Before March, citizens of these countries had to apply in Iraqi embassies in advance of any planned visit to the country, which could often entail significant waiting periods.

While this reform isn't likely to result in a large influx of visitors from these countries anytime soon - due to continued Covid-19 related travel restrictions around the world, among other things - the move is still, nevertheless, a significant and noteworthy one.

Baghdad is taking a page out of the KRG's book with reforms that will make it easier for foreign visitors to get an Iraqi visa

Before, getting a visa could be a time-consuming process for citizens of many of these countries. This was in stark contrast to the autonomous Kurdistan Region, where citizens of many Western countries could simply fly into Erbil or Sulaymaniyah International Airport without having to make any prior applications and obtain a visa for at least a few weeks for a small fee.

It was an efficient and straightforward process. That, coupled with the region's vaunted stability and security compared to federal Iraq, especially during the bloody and turbulent years of the Iraq war, saw it become a much more popular destination for foreign visitors than Baghdad. 

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In the late 2000s, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) took advantage of this distinction by advertising itself as 'the other Iraq', urging foreign investment in the region, which it bragged was on its way to becoming the next Dubai. Its liberal visa system made it easy for foreigners from many countries to fly in and see the impressive development and progress it was making first-hand. 

The rise of the Islamic State (IS) and its genocidal rampages on the KRG's doorstep in 2014 obviously set back many of these grandiose ambitions. Also, Baghdad itself briefly seemed determined to dismantle the KRG's visa system altogether.

After the Kurds overwhelmingly voted 'yes' in a referendum on independence on 25 September, 2017, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's Iraqi government reacted angrily. It promptly closed the airspace over the region to civil aviation and demanded the KRG surrender control over its airports and international border crossings. It also sought to revoke the KRG's authority to issue visas for visitors to that region and impose the retrograde federal visa system on Iraqi Kurdistan. Abadi unequivocally stressed at the time that exclusive Iraqi control over the granting of visas into the autonomous region was "a must." 

Foreigners in Iraqi Kurdistan who did not leave before the region's airports were closed to international flights could still exit the country via domestic flights through Baghdad. However, upon arrival in the Iraqi capital, they were told their KRG visas were invalid and that they needed to pay exorbitant fines – often as high as $400 – for not having an Iraqi federal visa.

For decades, Baghdad has repeatedly sought to realise its tourism potential only to have its efforts stifled by one crisis after another

Luckily for foreign visitors to the Kurdish region, Abadi ultimately did not get his way. The flight ban was lifted by the spring of 2018 and things largely reverted to the pre-referendum status quo. Abadi also lost badly in the May 2018 Iraqi election.

Now, Baghdad has gone from trying to dismantle the KRG's visa system to emulating it. This is a positive development that could potentially bring it some important benefits in the long run. 

Iraq's economy is presently in dire straits. The collapse of oil prices, the war against IS, and now the Covid-19 pandemic have taken their collective toll on the country. In December, the Central Bank of Iraq cut the Iraqi dinar's value by 18.5 percent in a bid to stimulate the economy and avert disaster. This new streamlined visa process will make it easier for Iraq to attract foreign investment in the long-term, which it certainly could use.

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In Iraq's Anbar province, where the major provincial cities of Ramadi and Fallujah were utterly decimated during the war against IS, businesses and the local economy are faring surprisingly well. The tremendous progress in reconstruction, in particular, has left few reminders of the destructive war that plagued the area just five years ago. Nearly 80 percent of Ramadi was destroyed in late 2015. In the near future, it could even be home to the largest shopping mall in Iraq.

Such progress is reminiscent of the pre-2014 economic boom experienced in Iraqi Kurdistan. A combination of minimal federal interference and private investment, mainly from Gulf countries seeking to develop Anbar's vast energy resources, is primarily to thank for this. Iraq's visa reform could increase the chances of this experience being replicated elsewhere in the country.

A new streamlined visa process will make it easier for Iraq to attract foreign investment in the long-term future

For decades, Baghdad has repeatedly sought to realise its tourism potential only to have its efforts stifled by one crisis after another. In the foreseeable future, successful reconstruction and increased security (Baghdad has suffered relatively few terrorist attacks since IS was removed from Mosul in 2017) and stability could eventually attract tourists. Here again, this visa reform will help. Journalists could also take advantage of the on-arrival visa system, which would undoubtedly make their job in Iraq much easier. 

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For journalists, getting an Iraqi visa before March would have either meant waiting a few weeks after applying, as was often the case with citizens from EU countries, or even having to wait for months, as was the case with some American journalists.

It also varied depending on the location of the embassy from where they were applying. Even if the journalist in question was already based in Erbil, they still needed to fly out of the country to apply for their Iraqi visa. The process was still relatively cheap, with timing being the biggest hurdle.

A visa on arrival would remove a major obstacle from the overall process, particularly for reporting from Baghdad since journalists could fly there on short notice, which would be essential for reporting on breaking news stories from the Iraqi capital. 

While these are still early days, Baghdad's decision to lessen the hurdles for foreigners obtaining an Iraqi visa is undoubtedly a positive sign and a step in the right direction.

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon