Ancient rooftops and modern satellite dishes
Antique shop in the Citadel
Take me to Baghdad
Del Boy of Iraq
Expat housing complex
Fabric in the main souq
Kids can play
Food stall in the main souq
Main Square from the Citadel
Modern Iraqi family
Shoe shiner and his family
Strawberries and conkers
“Normal travel to the Erbil province and the Kurdistan Region can continue,” I read apprehensively as I started to plan my trip to Iraqi Kurdistan. On the 16th of October 2016, the Iraqi Prime Minister declared the beginning of an assault to recapture the city of Mosul which had been under Islamic State/Daesh (ISIS) control since June 2014. At one point the militants had reached to within 35 km of Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous region controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government. I travelled to Erbil in late 2016 and, given that Mosul is under 100km away, I was keeping a close eye on developments.
When travelling to anywhere unfamiliar, it is always important but not always particularly easy to get access to reliable information about what conditions are like on the ground. Location allowances are paid in recognition of the difficulty that may be experienced by expatriates and their families in adjusting to a new location. A variety of factors are evaluated to give an accurate reflection of circumstances assignees may encounter including climate; housing & utilities; isolation; health facilities; infrastructure; personal safety; and socio-political tensions – plus a range of others. ECA's unique Location Ratings methodology takes into consideration both the home and host locations of the assignee, creating an impartial system for calculating location allowances for expatriates so all factors are considered before an assignment begins using up-to-date information. Based on multi-source information, feedback from our International Data Researchers (like myself!), as well as expatriates, forms an important part of the research and analysis process.
Obviously, the rise of 24-hour news coverage and the reach of the internet has made it easier to find out relevant information – I was able to get live battlefield updates covering the military operation and follow events on twitter using #MosulOffensive and #MosulOp. The UK Foreign Office website provides a useful overview and is usually a key source for ECA’s International Data Research team when considering travel plans. We also have access to detailed up-to-date information from dedicated travel security firms and so we are well-equipped to make decisions on the viability of trips to volatile locations.
But sometimes there are gaps, the information is out-of-date, biased or, on occasion, excessively cautious. When the guidebooks are of little use or the security situation is very fluid, local contacts can be vitally important – whether expatriates or locals, they can help in addressing direct queries you may have. Just before my trip, I received word from a ‘friend of a friend’ who works for an NGO in Erbil that life was more-or-less continuing as normal but that staff were advised to avoid certain busy public spaces that may become targets. It was also mentioned that some other NGO’s had imposed a curfew, due to the perceived increase in risk.
Luckily for me, I can also lean on my IDR colleagues who can, more often than not, paint a very trustworthy picture about what to expect and how best to prepare for travel in some of the world’s more ‘edgy’ destinations. Four of my current colleagues have taken the trip to Iraq trouble-free and so their advice is invaluable – indeed, an old colleague, Rachel, wrote a very insightful blog on her impressions of the city, here. While it can be argued that guidebooks and structured itineraries take the excitement and spontaneity out of travelling, it is reassuring to get a few words of advice when you’re heading to a location neighbouring an active war zone.
Erbil itself is politically stable and is a relatively secure travel destination with the frequency and impact of security incidents much lower than in other provinces in the country. This is owed in part to the homogeneity of the Kurdish people in the region and to the presence of the Peshmerga, the Kurdish military force. Peshmerga translates as “those who confront death” and while they have (or once had) a worldwide fearsome reputation as warriors, the Kurdish people on the whole are extremely hospitable. In fact, providing hospitality is a sacred responsibility for the Kurds. The staff at my hotel were some of the most attentive and eager to please of all that I have encountered in this job so far.
Foreigners are typically welcomed. All my interactions with the locals were positive and conversations were generally punctuated with a mutual curiosity of each other’s lives. Other than a Peshmerga taxi driver showing me a few gruesome photos on his phone, you’d have no idea there was a bloody battle going on down the road. Apart from at the airport and at the five-star hotels, security wasn’t as obtrusive as I’d imagined and any conversations about ISIS were brushed off as if the terrorist organisation were merely an inconvenience. The people of Erbil clearly have faith in the ‘Asayish’, the Kurdish intelligence agency, and in the strength of the region – however, long-term visits here must be approached with caution due to the volatile and unstable nature of the wider area.
Most expats working in Erbil on assignment will live in gated communities with 24-hour security guards and CCTV cameras. The ISIS uprising and the fall of oil prices led to significant rent decreases in Erbil in 2014. However, as the situation has somewhat stabilised since, the expatriate rental market has witnessed moderate increases in the past year. ECA International has recently published an Accommodation Report which provides an overview of the rental market in the city. Expatriates tend to gravitate towards particular areas due to the location of international schools, embassies, social focal points and other facilities and Erbil is no different - there are particular areas, neighbourhoods and compounds that expats tend to favour which are all explored in the report.
As is so often the case with locations that sometimes attract headlines for the wrong reasons, my pre-trip jitters were tempered after a few hours in the city. However, a brief business trip like mine does obviously differ in many ways from a long-term assignment. For example, during my short visit I was fortunate enough not to need any medical facilities nor assistance from law enforcement. Both crime levels and health services score very poorly in ECA’s rating system. As mentioned previously, ECA’s Location Ratings team considers numerous factors in order to arrive at a decision about what level of ‘location allowance’ to recommend for assignees in the region. Currently, our team suggests generous location allowances for Erbil in recognition of the difficulties that relocating, adapting and living in the city might present.
But, with visa-on-arrival for citizens of the US, Canada, EU, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, there might be fewer hurdles than you think to exploring the city for yourself and enjoying a rewarding visit to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
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Location Allowance Calculator
ECA's Location Ratings are delivered through ECA's Location Allowance Calculator which offers a transparent and detailed system for calculating location allowances for expatriates relocating to a new country. The system recognises that where an employee is coming from as well as going to can affect the level of adaptation required. Users can select region-to-city allowances or city-to-city allowances, so that depending on a company's policy the system reflects the level of detail required.
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