| 19 May 2024, Sunday |

Despite oil wealth, poverty fuels despair in south Iraq

Oil flows freely in Iraq’s southern province of Basra, but little of the wealth reaches the people, and many struggle to make ends meet.

Sajad, a 17-year-old from Basra, claims he has “no future” and “no present.” He, like other young people, claims to be merely surviving, a living symbol of the city’s ills.

Basra province produces roughly 70% of crude oil in Iraq, which is the Middle East’s second largest exporter after Saudi Arabia.

However, the province is particularly hard hit by many of the issues plaguing Iraq, which is still recovering from years of war and turmoil following the 2003 US-led invasion that deposed dictator Saddam Hussein.

In the absence of official figures, Iraqi economist Barik Schuber estimated that unemployment affects 20 to 25 percent of the population in Basra, and nearly 30 percent of the youth.

According to World Bank data, this compares to a national rate of 13.7 percent.

Basra province and its four million inhabitants face a lack of water and electricity, as well as pockmarked roads and toxic pollution from hydrocarbon extraction.

The despair of the young, on the other hand, is the most devastating.

Sajad and Jawad, both 16, are huddled around their shisha pipes, unable to find anything to cheer about.

Sajad does not work, whereas Jawad claims to work “eight to thirteen hours a day in a restaurant for 7,000 dinars (about $4.80) per day.”

“I don’t see a future here; I want to go to Baghdad,” Sajad said as he sat on the banks of the Shatt Al-Arab waterway, which connects the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Some investments have been made, such as the construction of a new stadium in preparation for the Gulf Cup football tournament, which will be held in Basra in January 2023.

Dorgham Al-Ajwadi, the deputy governor of Basra, admitted that “the people are angry.”

He blamed the inequitable distribution of the federal budget on the distant government in Baghdad.

“In 2021, the Iraqi budget will be around 130 trillion Iraqi dinars ($89 billion), but Basra’s budget will be less than one trillion,” he explained.

“It’s only about 0.7 percent of the total budget, while Basra contributes more than 108 trillion.”

Mortada, a 27-year-old Basra resident, blames the local authorities rather than Baghdad.

He explained that before the pandemic, he ran an unregistered ice cream shop.

“Then the authorities shut down the illegal businesses, including mine,” he explained, asking that his surname not be published in order to avoid problems “with certain people.”

He voted for an independent candidate unaffiliated with the major parties in Iraq’s parliamentary elections on October 10 because “I believe he can change things.”

Many people have deeper grievances.

In mid-2018, Basra was a hotbed of massive protests, foreshadowing the near-nationwide protests that rocked the country beginning in October 2019.

Corruption, poor public services, and, above all, the influence of neighboring Iran, whose local consulate was set ablaze, sparked outrage in Basra.

Tehran has long wielded power in Iraq through political parties and factions of the Hashed Al-Shaabi, a former paramilitary umbrella organization that was absorbed into Iraq’s armed forces.

Some in Basra accuse “Tehran-aligned groups” of wielding harmful influence and infiltrating the economic fabric.

One such critic refused to reveal his identity, claiming that “if it is published, I risk being murdered.”

According to Mortada, who works odd jobs and aspires to work “for the state,” little has changed three years after the Basra protests.

A job in the petroleum sector is seen as the ultimate prize in Basra, more than in any other part of the country, for its promise of stability and prosperity.

However, according to Mac Skeleton, executive director of the Institute of Regional and International Studies in Iraqi Kurdistan, jobs in Basra’s petrol industry are distributed through nepotism.

“Each of the major Shia majority parties is competing over the Basra oil company, security contracts in the oil fields, and various assets,” he explained.

However, “connections” are required for entry, he explained, adding that “at the end of the day, there is a kind of limit to how many people can benefit from these different spheres of power.”

Some people, despite having connections, miss out, according to Sajad, whose uncle works for the oil ministry.

The young man claimed that his senior relative had already “accommodated two people from his family” and thus “cannot hire me.”

  • Arab News