Young Iraqis use innovation to make a living in oil-rich south

Iraqi Omar Abdallah operates at his workshop in Basra on June 17, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 18 June 2018
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Young Iraqis use innovation to make a living in oil-rich south

  • The job market for Iraqi youths has become starkly different in the post-Saddam Hussein era
  • In the decade which followed the US invasion and the dictator’s ouster in 2003, authorities continued to increase state hirings — with a heavy dose of nepotism

BASRA: From a roving cafe to scrap metal sculptures, young Iraqis unable to tap into the country’s oil wealth are having to find creative ways to make a living.
While their parents generally went straight into public sector jobs after graduation, the job market for Iraqi youths has become starkly different in the post-Saddam Hussein era.
In the decade which followed the US invasion and the dictator’s ouster in 2003, authorities continued to increase state hirings — with a heavy dose of nepotism.
But now, as 26-year-old Karrar Alaa discovered, there are no more guarantees.
Three years ago, he was counting on his business degree leading to a public sector job in the southern port city of Basra.
But tired of waiting, he has turned entrepreneur.
After gathering up all of his savings and borrowing money from relatives, Alaa invested in a car and transformed it into a coffee shop on wheels.
“It’s the first of its kind in Basra. I got the idea from a video shot in Europe and posted on Facebook,” he told AFP.
The “Coffee 2 Go” car has a giant plastic cup mounted on the roof, while an image of a cup of cappuccino and coffee beans is emblazoned on the body.
An initial investment of $20,000 has led to daily earnings of around 150,000 dinars, or $120, from cups of coffee made in a machine installed in the car boot.
Mashreq Jabbar earns similar sums from his little bookshop squeezed into a corridor of a Basra fashion mall.
“Renting a shop costs $6,000 a month; I only pay $2,500 for my hallway,” said the slim 26-year-old, as he tidied shelves of school books, romantic novels and poetry collections.
The geology graduate had also hoped to get a job as a public official, confident that his degree would make him employable in the local oil industry.
But even though the sector accounts for 89 percent of the state budget and 99 percent of Iraq’s export revenues, it provides only one percent of jobs as the majority of posts are filled by foreigners.
The lack of opportunities is nationwide; from the capital Baghdad to second city Mosul in the north, and from the agricultural east to the western desert.
It is not uncommon to find engineers working as taxi drivers, or sandwich stalls manned by literature graduates in a country of avid readers.
Officially, 10.8 percent of Iraqis are jobless, while youth unemployment is twice as high in a country where 60 percent of the population are aged under 24.
A mushrooming number of private universities — with Baghdad boasting around 30 — has made the situation even worse among graduates.
The private sector which emerged after Saddam’s rule has failed to fill the employment gap, with many young Iraqis holding out for the coveted public sector posts.
“The common view is that there’s no choice but to work in the public sector,” said Ahmed Abdel Hassan, an economics professor at the University of Basra.
“Young people who go to work in the private sector say it’s a temporary move before getting a post in the public sector,” he said.
Even Basra’s entrepreneurs see the benefits, with Alaa noting the social security and pension perks, while Jabbar pointed to civil servants’ guaranteed salaries.
Many of those holding out for a state job, however, are left unable to move out of their parents’ house.
Omar Abdallah, 28, had pinned his hopes on getting a teaching job at the end of his studies in fine art.
Iraq once had a high-quality and free education system, but that was left in tatters following the international embargo of the 1990s after Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait.
Having failed to land a job and with no capital to start a business of his own, Abdallah began collecting scrap metal.
“I could only count on myself and my talent,” he said at his family home, where one room serves as both his workshop and exhibition space.
Abdallah has transformed old bicycle chains into scorpions, cutlery into dragonflies and used nuts and bolts to make motorbike models.
In a good month he can sell half a dozen sculptures, charging between $200 and $250 apiece.
“People love my sculptures,” he said proudly. “They tell me: ‘How did you manage to make something so beautiful out of rubbish?’“


China-US trade talks ‘making a final sprint’ — state media

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping as U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, left, and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He, right, look on before proceeding to their meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China February 15, 2019. (REUTERS)
Updated 16 February 2019
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China-US trade talks ‘making a final sprint’ — state media

  • US duties on $200 billion in imports from China are set to rise to 25 percent from 10 percent if there is no deal by March 1 to address US demands

SHANGHAI: Chinese state media on Saturday expressed cautious optimism over trade talks between the United States and China, a day after President Xi Jinping said a week of discussions had produced “step-by-step” progress.
Xi made the comments at a meeting on Friday with US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in Beijing, after a week of senior- and deputy-level talks.
The People’s Daily, the official paper of the ruling Communist Party, said in a commentary that Xi’s meeting with US negotiators had affirmed progress made in previous talks and “injected new impetus into the next stage of the development of Sino-US trade relations.”
The talks “have made important progress” for the next round of negotiations in Washington next week, the paper said in its domestic edition.
“It is hoped that the two sides will maintain the good momentum of the current consultations and strive to reach an agreement within the set time limit,” it said.
US duties on $200 billion in imports from China are set to rise to 25 percent from 10 percent if there is no deal by March 1 to address US demands that China curb forced technology transfers and better enforce intellectual property rights.
In its overseas edition, the People’s Daily said “zero-sum thinking and games where you lose and I win can only create losses for both. Only on a basis of mutual respect and equal treatment, through dialogue and consultation, can we find a solution acceptable to both sides.”
An English-language editorial in the Global Times, which is published by the People’s Daily, said news that China had consulted on the text of a memorandum of understanding “shows the two sides have made unprecedented progress.”
“The MOU and next week’s talks both show that the seemingly endless China-US trade negotiations, like a marathon, are making a final sprint,” it said.
The newspapers cautioned that any agreement would have to be in the interests of both the United States and China.
“There are still obstacles to be overcome, and no one should underestimate how daunting a task the two sides face trying to resolve all the differences that have long existed between them in one clean sweep,” the official English-language China Daily said in an editorial.