x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Iraqis find jobs and safety in Kurdistan

The Rotana hotel in Iraqi Kurdistan's capital creates opportunities for locals to enter the industry.

Zaid Husham al Shekhly, who fled Iraq six years ago, headed later to Erbil to pursue his dream career in the hospitality industry. Lee Hoagland / The National
Zaid Husham al Shekhly, who fled Iraq six years ago, headed later to Erbil to pursue his dream career in the hospitality industry. Lee Hoagland / The National

ERBIL // Zaid Husham al Shekhly had long dreamed of working at a five-star hotel.

Like many Iraqis, Mr al Shekhly fled Baghdad in 2005 as conflict spread through the capital. Friends had been the victims of kidnappings and terrorist bombings, and daily curfews meant his freedom was limited.

He is one of thousands of Iraqis who have headed north for the boom town of Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan in search of stability and job opportunities. "There's no life in Baghdad," the 31-year-old says. "Everyday there's a car bomb, suicide bombing. You're worried all the time."

In one brutal attack, three of his friends were kidnapped by terrorists, who demanded ransoms of US$50,000 (Dh183,650) for each of them. The families paid but his friends were murdered.

So Mr al Shekhly fled the violence six years ago and spent a year working for a telecoms company in Jordan and learnt English. Then he headed to Erbil, taking on two jobs - working in a bank by day and moonlighting as a telecoms customer services agent at night.

When he heard that a $90 million Rotana luxury hotel was opening in the city and a friend told him the Abu Dhabi chain was hiring, he jumped at the chance to enter the hospitality industry.

"I quit the job at the bank for the hotel," says Mr al Shekhly, who got a job as a reservations agent for the hotel, which opened in December.

"It's the first chain in Iraq with this kind of high quality of service. We haven't had something like this in Iraq before," says Mr al Shekhly.

Rotana has taken on 350 employees in Erbil, half of whom are Iraqi, with the rest from countries in Africa, India, Turkey and elsewhere.

Erbil, as the capital of Iraq Kurdistan, which has its own government, has become a magnet for Iraqis from the south looking to escape violence as well as for international companies wanting to enter Iraq.

That means Erbil is also where the jobs are. Locals say politicians describe Erbil as the "new Dubai".

It is not there yet. But development is taking place at a rapid pace, with new buildings springing up.

Modern malls with stores of international brands including Levi's, Timberland and Ecco, and indoor skating rinks, have opened.

"This is something new for the people," says Toffi Kubba, the sales manager at the clothes store Mexx in the Family Mall, which opened a few months ago in Erbil, complete with an outdoor amusement park. A cinema is also expected to open there soon.

A $450m international airport was formally inaugurated by the president of the Kurdistan regional government just over a month ago in Erbil. Since the airport opened in September, average monthly passenger traffic has increased by 47 per cent, while cargo volume is up 35 per cent, according to the airport, which says this makes it the "fastest-growing airport in the Middle East".

The UAE is also expanding its connections with Erbil, with flydubai and Etihad Airways launching service to the city last year.

In March, the UAE Government approved a proposal to set up a consulate in Erbil.

The UAE's Majid Al Futtaim plans to open a Carrefour store in Erbil.

The Abu Dhabi-based Middle East division of Millennium & Copthorne has also taken over the management of the Erbil International Hotel and is planning a $12m refurbishment.

International hotel operators, including Marriott and Moevenpick, are looking at opportunities to launch hotels in Erbil, which would largely accommodate business travellers working on oil and gas and infrastructure projects in the region.

It is difficult to find locals who understand the luxury hospitality industry and are prepared to accept the rules and regulations imposed by a company, while few are prepared to work on career development, says Thomas Touma, the general manager of the Erbil Rotana. "The tourism and hotel industry in this country is not developed, so you can't expect people to have experience in it."

But some are willing to learn. "I didn't have any experience in hotels before," says Mohamed Hassan, 36, a concierge at the Erbil Rotana, who was born in the city. "I'm learning everything from Rotana."

rbundhun@thenational.ae