« We should not extract all the oil we can from our fields. We should keep some underground for future generations, bearing in mind that techniques of exploitation will improve with time, and that in10 or 20 years, we might be able to recover a larger share of our deposits .»
So says Parwen Babaker, President of WZA Petroleum Company, in a statement that is, to say the least, far from being regarded as politically correct in Iraqi Kurdistan today.
Indeed, it is in direct contradiction of the present policy of Ashti Hawrami, the natural resources (oil) minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Hawrami, often described as the « architect of Kurdistan’s oil industry », who wants to increase production capacity from the current 250.000 barrels a day (b/d) to 1 million b/d in the coming years, bringing in major oil companies such as Exxon, which has already signed a deal, and France’s Total, which is reported to be about to follow the American giant, even at the risk of provoking Baghdad’s wrath.
Parwen Babaker is elegant and determined. Born in 1961, she is the daughter of Babaker Hama Agha Pishdari, the first Kurdish Agha, or overlord, of the famous Pishdari tribe, to work as a humble schoolteacher.
Brought up with a great respect for the advantages an education can confer on an individual, Parwen Babaker was the first daughter of an Agha to attend university, where she studied for a degree in chemistry, graduating in 1983. Gaining employment with the Sarchinar cement factory, she climbed step by step, from the lowly position of assistant chemist to that of a quality control supervisor, and finally to manager, a position she held from 1998 to 2003.
The story goes that when Jalal Talabani, then secretary general of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and all powerful overlord of Suleimania province, went to visit the Sarchinar cement factory, he found the manager’s office empty. On investigation, he discovered the manager, Parwen Babaker, was among the workers, supervising their production on the spot. Deeply impressed by her capacity to do fieldwork, Jalal Talabani appointed her minister of industry in the next government (2003-2007), based in Suleimania (at that time, Kurdistan Iraq was split in two rival administrations based in Suleimania (PUK), and Erbil (KDP). Today, as part of her remit as president of WZA, which operates as part of the Nokan group, she is in charge of the oil and gas file for PUK.
Priority to agriculture
Asked how she believes the region’s oil revenues should be spent – and what she feels about the rush to build office blocks, multistorey hotel towers and commercial malls – the former industry minister is adamant that « Priority should be given to agriculture ».
The Kurds, she notes, are importing the bulk of their fruit and vegetables from Turkey and Iran, even though Kurdistan has some of the most fertile land in the Middle East. « Our farmers have become policemen and peshmergas (soldiers) in the cities and do not want to go back to their villages.
« We should encourage them to go back to the countryside and attract them back there by building new infrastructures, including roads and power supplies. This is very important. We should also help them to produce competitive products – at the present time, local fruit and vegetables are more expensive than imported products, » Parwen Babaker noted.
She does not criticise the building spree under way in Kurdistan in urban or rural locations. « Our country was destroyed, » she says, « we need infrastructure, housing, offices, malls …»
Asked what she feels was her greatest achievement during her tenure as minister of industry, Parwen Babaker says she is « very proud of having achieved the privatisation of the Tasluja cement factory », (the smaller plant of Sarchinar, located in a touristic suburb of Suleimania, was closed). « Some people, even my friends, told me that I would fail. But I succeeded. And daily production at the plant, which was down at 800 tons, has risen to more than 6,000 tons ».
But, she concedes, not all her attempts to vitalise the light industries sector have enjoyed similar success. There is good quality marble in a variety of different colours in Kurdistan, but she was unable to successfully establish a marble factory.
« I also tried to open a pomegranate juice factory near Halabja », she explains, « but we were unable to procure the large quantities of juice we reuired ».
She also tried to create a tannery, to use the skins of locally slaughtered cattle. « An Italian company came to do a feasibility study but I left the ministry before we were able to get the project off the ground .»
It is however important to remember that she was appointed Minister of Industry in 2003, right after the fall of Saddam Hussein, at a time when Kurdistan and its Suleimania province were emerging from decades of neglect and the whole concept of an emerging new economic base was beyond the imagination of many who had lived through years of oppression.
Today, as president of WZA Petroleum Company, Parwen Babaker deals with oil and gas, the biggest industry success story of Kurdistan. Her company, WZA, won a 15-year contract to maintain and upgrade the Bazian refinery. With an initial capacity of 20,000 b/d, it was built to refine the oil from Kirkuk, API 37, and is now also refining oil from Tac-Tac, API 47, and producing four products : fuel oil, naphta, gas oil and kerosene.
There were plans to bring capacity up to 35,000 b/d by the end of May, and step by step, to 100,000 b/d, with the aid of $1 billion, brought in by local investors.
« To export our crude is not to our advantage », Perwan Babaker reiterates, « We do not want other countries to refine our oil, we should aim to supply our own refined products, although,» she adds, mulling over what she said at the beginning of our meeting, « bringing international companies into Kurdistan was a good step and a brave decision. Otherwise, the Iraqi government would never have let us take the oil from our ground ».
(The Middle East magazine, August/September 2012)
Umm Qasr, Iraq
Hafez al Assad