Today marked the inaugural flight linking Yerevan with Erbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Armenia’s General Civil Aviation Department reports that the Iraqi Airways flight, linking Baghdad and Yerevan with a quick stopover in Erbil, will operate every Thursday and Sunday commencing March 5.
As announced, Flight IAW 481 will depart from Baghdad and will land at Yerevan’s Zvartnots International Airport at 1pm. At 2pm, Flight IAW 484 will leave Yerevan for Erbil. At 5pm, Flight IAW 483 will return to Yerevan and will leave for Baghdad at 6pm.
The new route, to be operated by Iraqi Airways, the country’s national carrier established in 1945, will be serviced by planes in the Canadian made Bombadier CRJ900 and American Boeing 737 class. Iraqi Airways now has five CRJ900 and twelve Boeing 737 planes in its fleet.
After Armenia’s Deputy Economy Minister Tigran Harutyunyan visit to Iraqi Kurdistan in August 2013, the Kurdish and Armenian press raised the issue of the establishment of an Armenian diplomatic presence in the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan and the possibility of an air route linking Yerevan and Erbil.
Noteworthy is the fact that in 2014 Massoud Barzani, President of the Kurdish regional Government (KRG) approved a bill recognizing Armenian, Assyrian and Turkmen as official languages of Iraqi Kurdistan, alongside Kurdish and Arabic.
Armenia’s Ambassador to Iraq, Karen Grigoryan, recently paid an official visit to Erbil and not only made an announcement regarding the new air route but reported that Armenia had decided to open a consulate in the Iraqi Kurdistan capital. Earlier this month, Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandyan met with President Barzani on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference in Germany. The Iraqi Kurdish leader welcomed the decision by Armenia and the two sides stressed that the new Erbil-Yerevan air link would spur commercial ties between the two states.
Diplomatic relations between Armenia and Iraq were established in 2000. That year, Armenia opened its embassy in Baghdad and a year later Iraq opened its embassy in Yerevan. Due to the ongoing conflict in Iraq, the embassies ceased to operate but reopened in 2010 and 2011 respectively.
Business links between Armenia and Iraq have developed in a somewhat lopsided fashion.
Armenia exports more to Iraq than it imports. In 2013, Armenia exported US$48.5 million worth of goods to Iraq while it imported $30.1 million. Last year, exports rose to $80.6 million and imports dropped to $26.8 million.
Armenia mainly exports cigarettes, alcoholic beverages and potatoes to Iraq. Imports mostly consist of petroleum products, petroleum gases, hydrocarbons and…used clothing.
Given this trade picture, it is clear that Armenian producers of cigarettes and alcoholic beverages will be the first to benefit from the new air link and the establishment of an Armenian consulate in Erbil.
Here, we refer to such companies as Aleks Grig, a top player in the alcohol beverage industry owned by Armenian MP Samvel Aleksanyan, and Grand Candy, a major cigarette manufacturer in Armenia.
Naturally, the commercial air freight companies will also benefit even though the new passenger air route is intended to spur tourism.
However, it’s hard to imagine how Iraq, which barely survived a bloody decade of war and remains politically unstable, will attract tourists from Armenia. Despite the fact that Baghdad and Mesopotamia in general are the centers of ancient civilizations, there are other popular vacation sites in the Middle East (like the UAE and Lebanon) that are much more competitive. While well-to-do Iraqis may be intrigued with Armenia’s Christian culture, it’s difficult to imagine them travelling to Armenia in droves given the domestic political situation in Iraq.
Perhaps, the bulk of passengers utilizing the new air route will come from the Iraqi-Armenian community that now numbers some 13,000; down from 25,000 in 2013. It is estimated that there are 2,000 Armenians now residing in Iraqi Kurdistan.
It cannot be ruled out that in the midst of Islamic State (IS) operations in Iraq, many Armenians and Yezidis, and perhaps Kurds as well, will avail themselves of the new air route and find sanctuary in Armenia.
On its own, the decision of Armenia to open a consulate in Iraqi Kurdistan is a diplomatic move designed to mark its presence in a regionally tense zone where numerous interests are clashing including Turkish-Kurdish and Turkish-Armenian.
We should not forget that Erbil lies close to the borders of Turkey, Syria and Iran, and that it’s a region inhabited by Kurds, Yezidis and Assyrians – peoples who are also national minorities in Armenia.