The following article was published by Reidar Visser, an historian of Iraq educated at the University of Oxford and currently based at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. It is reproduced here with the author’s permission. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.
Comments to AFP by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki today on the oil deals signed by the Kurds are nothing short of sensational. That exports from the Kurdistan fields will go ahead has been rumoured for some time, but the more crucial point is the clear assertion by Maliki that the contracts signed by the Kurds with foreign companies will be honoured.
To appreciate the extent of the change of Maliki’s position, one needs only remember the vehement criticism of these bilateral deals by his point men on energy issues like Hussain al-Shahristani and Abd al-Hadi al-Hassani. It was this kind of opposition that led to the breakdown of the first export attempt back in summer 2009. In fact, just weeks ago, oil ministry officials were adamant that even if the exports were to be resumed, costs only (and not profit) were to be paid to the operating foreign companies by the central government.
In terms of the perennial debate about the constitutional right of provincial entities to sign contracts without reference to Baghdad, Maliki appears to sidestep the question somewhat by offering an ad hoc justification to the effect that oil drilling in the Kurdish areas is technically more difficult than in the south and for this reason it is permissible to accord greater profits to the companies that invest in the north than those operating in the south (where technical service contracts and more modest per-barrel remuneration have been the norm for foreign companies dealing with Baghdad). In this way, it looks as if the affair has been dressed up as the oil ministry “recognising” the deals because of the special geological challenges presented by the Kurdistan region, but it still begs the question of whether any deal signed by the Kurds in the future, regardless of profits etc., will automatically be recognised. The question is important, because according to the constitution, existing governorates can do exactly the same as federal regions as far as oil is concerned, and the issue of bilateral energy deals between governorates and foreign companies therefore forces its way onto the agenda as a potential domino effect that could gradually make Baghdad less influential in the energy sector (and, arguably, in governing the country as a whole). What if an existing governorate can reiterate the Kurdish argument about having a particularly challenging environment for drilling oil or gas?