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June 14, 2010 Kurds, Oil and International Political Economy

Kurdishaspect.com - By Saeed Kakeyi


Kurdish economy can be described in a few words: sluggish progress, static technologies and a divided country ever isolated from the International Consciousness. Many modern labor intensive industries have yet to make their way into Kurdistan. For geopolitical and geo-economics reasons, the agricultural, petroleum and mining industries higher fewer people from the Kurdish regions. To bring stability to the ever growing turmoil in the Middle East, Kurdish economy needs cash injection in order to stimulate the various sectors and open local employment opportunities. With equality and fair living standards, constant Kurdish conflicts could be resolved. Reasoned international and regional economic policies will create wages and income from agriculture, petroleum and transportation system throughout Kurdistan.  Supply and Demand equilibrium should contribute to reinvigorate the stagnant local markets. With symmetric local supply and demand, more Kurds will choose to stay in their homeland rather than flooding Turkish, Iranian and Arab cities and spilling over to Europe and USA.


The Kurds comprise a nation without a political state of their own; and they been living in the heart of the Middle East in a geographical area known as Kurdistan which for at least 3000 years. As an Indo-European people, Kurds have their own history, language and culture; different from those of the Arabs, Persians, and Turks. Their resourceful homeland has been arbitrarily and unjustly partitioned; firstly, due to the agrarian ambitions of the Otto-Persian Empires in 1514, then because of the tri Anglo-Franco-Italian colonial exploitations and the subsequent oil discoveries which led to the partition of Kurdistan amongst the newly created states of Iraq, Syria, and Turkey in 1923.

Kurdistan is endowed with a variety of rich natural resources. Beside significant reserves in iron, copper, zinc, and petroleum, it has a rich soil in its valleys, sufficient rainfalls, several flowing rivers, a temperate climate, and a great farming manpower. All these favorable factors should support an intensive system of industrial and agriculture production, if sound policies were followed.

However, because Kurdistan is divided by political frontiers between the four states of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, the central planning mechanisms in these countries have neglected the development priority needs of the Kurds. Yet, since the Kurds are the aboriginals of their lands, they have been refusing to tolerate negligence and, consequently, geo-economics became the main reasons for ongoing conflicts with the rulers in the aforementioned countries. The nature of these conflicts not only threatens the domestic economic progress in these countries, but also heavily affects the regional and the International economic stabilities. As is the current case of Turkey against the Kurds, on the one hand, it suppresses its own Kurdish population by not recognizing their legitimate rights to a fair and prosperous life, and on the other hand by interfering with the affairs of the Iraqi Kurds in practicing their constitutionally guaranteed self-rule.

How and why the Kurds became a divided nation?

Kurdistan was highly contested between the rulers of the Safavid Persia and Ottoman Empire.  In 1508, the struggle over the control of Kurdistan between the two empires began. For Safavids, which declared Shia’ism as their empire’s religion, the annexation of Kurdistan meant achieving two objectives: Firstly, to cast their authorities with ease over the agriculturally rich soils of the open plains and valleys of Kurdistan in order to gain an unrestricted access to the cheap Kurdish agricultural and farming products. Secondly, to marginalize the Kurdish Sunni Muslim decision-makers who were objecting to the expansion of the Persian Shia’ism to control the Shia holy cities of Najaf and Karbala in the Mesopotamian plain; present-day Iraq.

The Ottomans, however, saw Kurdistan and the Arab Vilayets (Provinces) of Baghdad and Basra as the bread baskets vital to their Empire’s economy. The Shatt al-Arab river was also of great importance to the Ottomans as it was their only access to the Persian Gulf.  As Sunni Muslims, the Ottomans interpreted the Safavid’s Shia influence in the region as a direct challenge to their authority in Kurdistan and the Arab world. As a result, the Ottoman Sultans supported the Sunni Kurds and the Sunni Arabs to stand against the Safavid Shia expansion.  The subsequent conflict between the Ottomans and Persians lasted more than three hundred years and amplified the pre-existing hostilities between the Shiites and the Sunnis of the Islamic World (Bahadori: 2005, 7).

As for the Kurds though, the uncontested powers of the Safavids and the Ottomans in the region were immense. Making matters worse, the rigid mountainous topography of Kurdistan—the Zagros Mountains chain runs spinally through Kurdistan—pushed the Kurdish feudal leaders, on each side of the Zagros mountains, think of having greater economic benefits by submitting respectively to the hegemonic authorities of their non-Kurdish neighbors. Helping to morally legitimize such devastating thoughts, Kurdish religious decision-makers argued that—according to the Islamic obedience and equality values—any objection to the “Islamic” rules of the Ottoman Sunni Khalifas of Constantinople as well as any disobedience of the “Vilayet Al-Faqeeh” of the Persian Shia’ism would constitute great sins. Therefore, these arguments encouraged both empires to cast their authorities over Kurdistan.

Shah Ismail of the Safavids captured Kurdistan in 1508.  Shortly thereafter, Sultan Selim I of the Ottomans regained control of much of Kurdistan in 1514. However, using a mixture of Turkish and Arab soldiers, Sultan Selim I was not able to get the needed Kurdish support in his Chaldiran Battle of 1514 to completely subdue Kurdistan (2005, 8). After decades of continual warfare, both sides deemed a complete military victory over the other unachievable. On May 29, 1555, emissaries from the Ottoman and Persian empires met in Amasya (present-day Turkey) and signed the Treaty of Amasya (2005, 8). This agreement is the first recorded treaty between the Persian Empire and the Ottoman Empire on Kurds regarding the partition of Kurdistan. The treaty remained in effect for nearly twenty years until warfare erupted between the two empires. The Ottoman Empire retained hegemony over Western Kurdistan until it was captured by the Persians in 1623. The ongoing war between the Persians and Ottomans over Kurdistan came to a relative end in 1639 with the signing of the Treaty of Zuhab (2005, 8).

The 1639 Treaty of Zuhab was the first agreement between the Ottoman Empire and Persian Empire to outline a border, roughly partitioning Kurdistan into two: East Kurdistan ruled by the Safavids and West Kurdistan under the Ottomans. Yet, in spite of the centralized conformational policies of the Otto-Persian empires, several Kurdish dynasties survived into the first half of the nineteenth century: Mukriyan and Ardalan in Persia; Botan, Makari, Badinan, Soran, and Baban in Turkey. However, none of these dynasties had allegiance to either empire.

During the latter part of the 17th century, revolts occurred by Kurdish feudal and tribal leaders against the Ottoman or Persian state, often times by instigating unfair taxations and applying them to non-Kurdish jurisdictional dynasties. Not only was this a problem for the expired treaty of Zuhab, it also set a precedent for future conflicts in the region.

While the Safavid Empire was declining, Karim Khani Zand, founder of the Kurdish Zand Dynasty of Shiraz in Persia, attacked and occupied the Vilayet of Basra in 1775 (2005, 9). Among other reasons, Zand’s goal was to disrupt Ottomans’ economic access to the Persian Gulf in a bid to weaken their influence in Western Kurdistan on the one hand, and to bring a hiatus to savagery of the Persian pro-Ottoman Sunnite forces which dominated much of the northern Persia on the other hand (Fisher and Ochsenwald: 1990, 249).

The occupation of Basra lasted through the turn of the century, but ended in 1821 when another war took place in Northeastern Kurdistan between the two empires. Both wars ended with the assistance of British mediation which resulted in the signing of the Treaty of Erzurum in 1823. This Treaty added two new western characteristics vis-à-vis border relationship. First, it helped in creating border zones instead of previous frontier lines. Second, the Treaty strictly called for the non-intervention of both sides in the others’ affairs (Cusimno, 1992). As it states in Article I of the treaty:

“From this period, on the side of Baghdad and Kurdistan no interference is to take place, nor with any Districts of the Divisions of Kurdistan within the boundaries, is the Persian government to intermeddle, or authorize any acts of molestation, or to assume any authority over the present or former possessors of those countries” (2005, 9).

While the terms of the Treaty of Erzurum were clear, both sides continued to intervene in each other’s Kurdish affairs to the extent that endangered the economic interests of the European colonial powers in the region. By 1840, tensions over the Kurdish unrest along the Otto-Persian borders nearly brought the two empires to war. However, Britain which had a strategic economic interest in Ottoman territories established a boundary commission composed of Iranian, Turkish, British and Russian diplomats to mediate the conflict.

According to Kamaran A. Muhammadamin, the effects of the Russian and the British influence in the Middle East reached a level at which more often than not Russian and British diplomats were drafting texts of the Persian-Ottoman treaties and that upon their requests the Persians and Ottomans used to held their conferences and diplomatic engagements (2000, 72).

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