What prevents Iraq from meeting the mounting youth employment challenge

Iraqis taking part in anti-government protests over corruption and unemployment. (AFP/File Photo)
Iraqis taking part in anti-government protests over corruption and unemployment. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 27 January 2022

What prevents Iraq from meeting the mounting youth employment challenge

Iraqis taking part in anti-government protests over corruption and unemployment. (AFP/File Photo)
  • Iraq’s economy shows few signs of breaking free of its longstanding dependence on oil production and export
  • Successive governments have failed to reduce the burden on state coffers by shrinking a bloated bureaucracy

DUBAI: When tens of thousands of young people took to the streets of Baghdad and towns and cities across southern and central Iraq in late 2019, one core demand resonated louder than any other — employment opportunities.

The country, which had only recently emerged from decades of tyranny, siege, war and insurgency, had delivered precious little for the generation of young Iraqis who came of age in the years after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Two years on from those protests, which fizzled out with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, and under the brutal heel of repression meted out by Iraq’s powerful militias, young Iraqis say nothing has changed.

“If anything we’re worse than when we started,” Rashid Mansour, a hairdresser from west Baghdad, told Arab News. “Neither me nor my cousins can afford to stay here. We all work part time. Just like the country, we’re all just getting by.”

With few performance indicators to suggest otherwise, Iraq’s sputtering economy shows little sign of breaking free of its long-standing dependence on the one thing that sustains it — oil.

Even though the country has opened up to the wider region and the world, having relaxed visa restrictions on visitors, there is not much sign of investment beyond the oil sector in the many other industries and enterprises long championed by its leaders.

Calls to diversify the nation’s economy have gone unanswered, while demands to streamline its bloated public sector continue to fall mostly on deaf ears. Efficiency drives are openly mocked by citizens, as are the hoops investors must jump through to establish private enterprises.

Almost two decades after the US-led invasion toppled the Baathist regime, Iraq continues to maintain one of the biggest per capita public-sector workforces in the world — which on paper employs about 7 million people among an estimated population of 39.3 million.

How this burden on state coffers might be reduced and workers moved into wealth-creating private ventures has stumped successive governments, and none have dared move against a constituency that could tip the result of any election, or against a system that has long been central to the way the country is run.




An Iraqi man smokes a waterpipe under a feminist mural painting with the Arabic slogan: “These are our women.” (AFP/File Photo)

“Iraq is up to its neck in this issue,” Ahmed Tabaqchali, chief strategist for the AFC Iraq Fund and a senior fellow at policy research institute IRIS Mideast, told Arab News.

“You see other countries, like Saudi Arabia with its Vision 2030 — it’s a good plan to stop oil dependency. But Iraq is different. You don’t have a strong central government there but rather multiple power sources.

“Oil revenues play a huge part. They pay public-sector pensions and salaries and offer social security. It’s a challenge to get off that. There is an unwritten social contract between the government and its people. People expect to be provided with services for their acceptance of the ruling government, and a public-sector job is one of those services.

“No party wants to embark on the reforms alone because that would weaken their power. Iraq needs a political class that is committed to long-term plans because that is the only way it would work. The private sector needs time to develop.”

INNUMBERS

* 39.3m Population of Iraq.

* 3.9% GDP growth rate (PPP).

* 12.8% Unemployment rate.

* $708.3bn GDP size (PPP).

Source: The Heritage Foundation (2021)

According to a recent World Bank country profile, oil revenues account for about 85 percent of the Iraqi government’s budget. A UN study in November 2021, entitled A Diagnostic of the Informal Economy in Iraq, found the country’s private sector is largely informal and accounts for 40-50 percent of employment.

Private-sector jobs pay lower average wages, offer fewer benefits and less job security than public-sector roles, which are seen as safer and more comfortable compared with the uncertainty of going it alone or trying to manage a start-up within a cumbersome regulatory environment.

“We have a big unemployment issue in the country,” Baghdad resident Tarek Abu Abdallah, 50, told Arab News.

“A large number of the youth are jobless and restless. Matters haven’t been improving with the dollar rising on the Iraqi dinar. Prices have doubled. It’s hard to afford a lot of things. The economic situation has everyone exhausted.”

The obstacles to building a functioning private sector are well understood by senior officials. In 2020 Ali Allawi, at the time the finance minister, introduced an economic reforms white paper that aimed to streamline the process of investing and setting up a business. A year later, he warned that oil revenues alone cannot support the salaries and perks enjoyed by state employees indefinitely.

Through the years, the tedious but necessary task of overhauling an ossified economy and a sclerotic bureaucracy has proved unappealing to Iraq’s ruling elite. The lumbering process of government formation after every general election demonstrates just how difficult it is to get the country’s many political factions on the same page on almost any issue.

“The Iraqi bureaucracy expanded because of the socialist system which had been established by Gen. Abd Al-Karim Qasim in 1958, and further in 1968 when the Baath party came,” Entifadh Qanbar, president of the Future Foundation in Washington and a former aide to Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi, told Arab News.

“The remnants of the socialist Iraqi state still control laws and regulations. I would call it ‘anti-business’ regulations. Bureaucracy was already massive but after 2003 bureaucracy exploded further. Iraqis developed a problematic perception of: ‘If you want to find a job, find a governmental one.’

“Every PM, when he comes to a new government, promises new government jobs — when the state is, in fact, incapable of paying more salaries.”




Iraq has one of the biggest per capita public-sector workforces in the world and a very weak private sector, and its leaders know that any attempt at reform will bring its own supporters out in protest. (AFP/File Photo)

In Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region, there are some signs of doing things differently, with Masrour Barzani, prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, having embarked on a reform program that has shaken up the status quo, in whose preservation the governing factions had a vested interest.

“In the past two years, the KRG has embarked on the biggest initiative ever undertaken to reform our public finances and to empower private enterprise,” a senior Kurdish official close to the PM’s office, who asked to remain anonymous, told Arab News.

“The changes we have put in place are driving efficiencies and recouping large amounts that can be redirected to buy the goods and services that truly matter, such as electricity generation, medicine and frontline workers. We recognize that the old ways of poor public finances do not drive progress or better living standards.

“The digitization of our government expenditure has been central to these changes. This move alone has saved hundreds of millions of dollars a year from the cost of the government, eliminating waste. Better procurement exercises have introduced further savings.

“We are also making sure that small companies have a genuine shot at winning public money. We have streamlined the process of registering a business, which was previously so cumbersome it acted as a disincentive.”




The 2019 protests in Iraq showed that, having only recently emerged from decades of tyranny, siege, war and insurgency, the country’s leaders had delivered precious little for the generation of young Iraqis who came of age in the years after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. (AFP/File Photo)

Looking to the future, Qanbar says the key to solving Iraq’s problems lies in radically improving the business environment and weaning the political economy off its dependence on oil.

“The addiction to the oil revenue has grown dangerous over the years,” he told Arab News.

“The Iraqi budget fluctuates depending on the prices of the oil market. The instability of the country isn’t attractive to foreign investment. There is a huge risk for foreign investors because they would require protection and security, services insurance companies cannot provide.”

The need to do things differently has long been touted by visiting officials and nongovernmental organizations in Iraq. The use of green energy is one such idea that has so far failed to gain traction.

“Given the lack of capability to invest and improve at the most basic levels, I think it’s out of the question that Iraq can invest in green energy at this point,” said Qanbar.

“It can’t provide basic services to its citizens, such as water, electricity, education and infrastructure.”


Houthi pirates accused of attempting to hijack racing yacht in Red Sea

Houthi pirates accused of attempting to hijack racing yacht in Red Sea
Updated 20 May 2022

Houthi pirates accused of attempting to hijack racing yacht in Red Sea

Houthi pirates accused of attempting to hijack racing yacht in Red Sea
  • The attackers, armed with rocket-propelled grenades, were repelled by the yacht's security force
  • Lakota, owned by French yachtsman arget is one of sailing world’s most famous boats

AL-MUKALLA: The Iran-backed Houthi militia in Yemen were accused on Thursday of trying to hijack one of the world’s most famous racing yachts in the Red Sea off the coast of Hodeidah.
Attackers in three fast-moving skiffs and armed with rocket-propelled grenades tried to board the Lakota, a 19-meter sailing trimaran owned by the French yachtsman Philippe Poupon.
The trimaran’s crew repelled the attacks and continued sailing up the Red Sea toward the Suez Canal. The yacht carries a racing crew of five but it is not known if Poupon himself, who has recently been on an Antarctic expedition with his family, was on board.
Yemeni fishermen in nearby waters saw crew on the vessel exchange fire with the attackers. “Several attempts were made to board her,” the maritime intelligence company Dryad Global said. “Reports indicate she managed to get away.”
Satellite-tracking data on Thursday showed the Lakota just west of the Hanish Islands in the Red Sea between Yemen and Eritrea on the Horn of Africa coast.
The racing trimaran, previously called the Pierre 1er, is one of the most famous vessels in the sailing world. Built in 1990, it was once owned by the American tycoon and adventurer Steve Fossett.
Poupon bought the yacht this year for an estimated €250,000 euros ($263,000).
It was on its way from the Philippines to France, from where the yachtsman plans to sail it in the solo Route du Rhum transatlantic race in November, and had docked in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa last Sunday.
Yemeni government officials said they had no doubt that the Houthi militia had carried out the attempted hijack.
“Our information says three armed Houthi boats sailed from Al-Saleef in Hodeidah on Tuesday and were stationed in the sea. They attacked the boat,” one official told Arab News.
The attack on the Lakota came days after the Houthis hijacked another vessel in the Red Sea delivering food to government troops in the city of Medi, in northern Hajjah province.
The vessel, which had three fishermen and two soldiers on board, was sailing from government-controlled Khokha, south of Hodeidah, to the 5th Military Region in Medi on Sunday when it was attacked by armed Houthi boats.
“The crew sent an alert that the Houthis were surrounding them and would arrest them, two hours after leaving Khokha,” a local officer told Arab News.
In January, the Houthis hijacked the UAE-flagged vessel Rwabee with a crew of 11 off the country’s west coast, triggering local and international condemnation.
The Coalition to Restore Legitimacy in Yemen said the ship was carrying medical equipment from a temporary Saudi hospital on the Yemeni island of Socotra.


Sudan arrests Communist Party figures as thousands protest coup

Sudan arrests Communist Party figures as thousands protest coup
Updated 19 May 2022

Sudan arrests Communist Party figures as thousands protest coup

Sudan arrests Communist Party figures as thousands protest coup
  • Thousands of protesters took to the streets, mainly in Khartoum but also elsewhere, to again call for civilian rule in the latest rally against the October coup

KHARTOUM: Sudanese security forces arrested leading anti-coup figures on Thursday, their party said, during protests by thousands against last year’s military takeover.

“Security forces raided the house of the political secretary of the Sudanese Communist Party Mohammed Mukhtar Al-Khatib,” the party said in a statement.

Another leading party member was also arrested at Khartoum airport, and the two men were taken to an “unknown location,” the party said.

The arrests came despite a pledge by coup leader Gen. Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan to free political detainees to set the stage for talks among Sudanese factions.

Last month, authorities released several anti-coup civilian leaders arrested in a crackdown.

The Communist Party members were detained following a trip to Juba, South Sudan where they met with rebel leader Abdel Wahid Nour who has refused to sign a landmark 2020 peace deal with the Sudanese government, according to the party statement.

They also visited rebel-held areas in South Kordofan controlled by Abdelaziz Al-Hilu, who also abstained from the 2020 deal, it said.

Thousands of protesters on Thursday took to the streets, mainly in Khartoum but also elsewhere, to again call for civilian rule in the latest rally against the October coup led by Gen. Burhan, according to AFP correspondents.

The pro-democracy Central Committee of Sudan Doctors said security forces fired tear gas “in large quantities” to quell the protests.

Regular mass demonstrations have rocked Sudan since the coup which derailed a fragile political transition set in motion after the 2019 ouster of longtime autocrat Omar Bashir.

Demonstrations have been met by a violent crackdown which has so far killed at least 95 protesters and wounded hundreds of others, according to medics.

The UN, along with the African Union and regional bloc IGAD, have been pushing to facilitate Sudanese-led talks to resolve the crisis after the northeast African country’s latest coup.

UN special representative Volker Perthes in late March said the country was heading towards “an economic and security collapse” unless its civilian-led transition was restored.

The military leader threatened to expel Perthes for alleged “interference” in the country’s affairs.


Trawling Iraq’s threatened marshes to collect plastic waste

Trawling Iraq’s threatened marshes to collect plastic waste
Updated 19 May 2022

Trawling Iraq’s threatened marshes to collect plastic waste

Trawling Iraq’s threatened marshes to collect plastic waste
  • The swamps, nestled between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, are one of the world’s largest inland deltas

CHIBAYISH: Iraq’s vast swamplands are the reputed home of the biblical Garden of Eden, but the waterways are drying out and becoming so clogged with waste their very existence is at risk, activists warn.

“For 6,000 or 7,000 years the inhabitants have protected the marshes,” said Raad Assadi, director of Chibayish Organization for Ecotourism, who this week began work on a boat to try to clear some of the worst areas of trash.

“But we have reached a stage where the marshes are threatened with extinction.”

The swamps, nestled between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, are one of the world’s largest inland deltas.

The wetlands barely survived the wrath of dictator Saddam Hussein, who ordered they be drained in 1991 as punishment for communities protecting insurgents and to hunt them down.

But after Saddam was toppled, Iraq pledged to preserve the ecosystem and provide functional services to the marshland communities, and they were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2016 both for their biodiversity and their ancient history.

Tourists have returned, but one of the main visible sources of pollution in the area are visitors who throw away their “plastic waste,” said Assadi.

After decades of brutal war, Iraq lacks structures for the collection and disposal of waste, and 70 percent of its industrial waste is dumped directly into rivers or the sea, according to data compiled by the UN and academics.

A team of 10 joins the boat, cruising the maze of narrow waterways to collect the piles of plastic bottles filling the channels, and erecting signs urging people to “respect our land,” and not to litter.

But it is far from the only threat: Iraq’s host of environmental problems, including drought and desertification, threaten access to water and livelihoods across the country.

The UN classifies Iraq “as the fifth most vulnerable country in the world” to climate change, having already witnessed record low rainfall and high temperatures in recent years.

The water level of the marsh is falling, a phenomenon accentuated by repeated droughts and by the dams built upstream of the two rivers, among Iraq’s upstream neighbors, Turkey and Iran.

“There is a threat to this ecosystem, which has significant biodiversity,” said French ambassador Eric Chevallier, at the launch on Thursday of the French-funded boat project.

Chevallier called for “much greater mobilization, Iraqi and international, to meet all the challenges” that a heating planet is causing.

A string of sandstorms in recent weeks have blanketed Iraq, with thousands needing medical care due to respiratory problems.

The Middle East has always been battered by dust and sandstorms, but they have become more frequent and intense in recent years.

The trend has been associated with overuse of river water, more dams, overgrazing and deforestation.

The rubbish collectors are not the only unusual team in the marshes: earlier this year, the Iraqi Green Climate Organization launched a veterinary ambulance to help farmers treat their water buffalo.


US military review of civilian casualties in Syria flawed, claims Human Rights Watch

US military review of civilian casualties in Syria flawed, claims Human Rights Watch
Updated 19 May 2022

US military review of civilian casualties in Syria flawed, claims Human Rights Watch

US military review of civilian casualties in Syria flawed, claims Human Rights Watch
  • NGO accuses defense department of “refusal to hold itself accountable for civilian deaths” 
  • US Congress needs to urgently address the military’s handling of civilian harm, says HRW Washington director

LONDON: Internal US military reviews of operations resulting in civilian harm remain “fundamentally” flawed and require urgent redress despite pledges made last year, Human Rights Watch said on Thursday.
On Tuesday, the US Department of Defense released a public summary, but not the full report, of an airstrike it conducted against Syria in 2019 in which it acknowledged faults for the handling of the operation but found no one accountable.
Sarah Yager, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, said: “It’s disappointing but not surprising the DOD has once again refused to hold itself accountable for civilian deaths.”
She added: “In addition to resolving obvious flaws in its investigative process, the US military should publish the full review, as a show of respect to the victims’ families and to prevent future abuses.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin initiated the review after a November New York Times article condemned an initial investigation for its failure to acknowledge that dozens of civilians had been killed by the strike on Baghouz in March 2019 and alleged individuals within the DOD had sought to cover up the extent of civilian harm.
Despite Austin’s intervention and pledge to create a Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan, HRW said this latest review failed in its commitments to transparency, lacked information from witnesses, used “an overly elastic definition of combatants” and did not provide amends for the civilians harmed.
The NGO claimed the DOD classified all adult males as combatants, regardless of their participation in hostilities, contravening international humanitarian law standards on distinguishing between civilians and combatants; relied on incorrect Syrian allies, rather than properly verifying information received; and provided no evidence of interviews with people outside the US military.
In a statement, HRW said: “Instead, it appears that the military reviewers relied upon the same incomplete information in the review that they relied upon to conduct the airstrike.”
Yager pointed to the failure to investigate as proof that the US Congress needed to intervene to urgently address the military’s handling of civilian harm.
“We had high hopes for Secretary Austin’s commitments earlier this year to reform, but the many missteps in this inquiry leave us deeply concerned that the US military hasn’t gotten the memo,” she said.


Outrage, shock among Fatah members over Birzeit University student election loss

Outrage, shock among Fatah members over Birzeit University student election loss
Updated 19 May 2022

Outrage, shock among Fatah members over Birzeit University student election loss

Outrage, shock among Fatah members over Birzeit University student election loss
  • Crushing defeat prompts calls for inquiry amid claims movement ‘is filled with mercenaries and intruders’
  • PA ‘leading us from defeat to defeat,’ says Fatah official after Hamas activist bloc takes control of student council

RAMALLAH: The crushing defeat of the Fatah-backed bloc in Birzeit University student council elections this week has caused shock and outrage among members and supporters of the movement, which is aligned with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

In the wake of the defeat, one of its heaviest, Fatah says it will form a committee to study the cause of the loss and draw lessons.

The Fatah bloc’s rivals, a Hamas-linked activist group, won a landslide victory in the poll at the flagship West Bank university on Wednesday, a result that some observers believe signals a possible shift in Palestinian public opinion.

The loss is believed to be Fatah’s biggest since its defeat by Hamas in the 2005 legislative elections. 

Fatah has led the Palestinian struggle since its launch in 1965 and formed the ruling party of the Palestinian Authority since its establishment in 1994.

However, the Fatah bloc gained the lowest number of votes and seats since the start of the university elections in 1996, prompting the head of the Fatah movement in Ramallah and Al-Bireh, Muwafaq Suhwail, to resign.

Other members of the Fatah leadership in Ramallah are expected to quit in coming days amid demands for an inquiry into the defeat.

Suhwail called for an investigation into the election result, claiming the movement was filled with “mercenaries and intruders.”

Hamas, meanwhile, said that its victory sends “a message to the Palestinian Authority that security coordination will not bring rights to the Palestinian people.”

The group said that the “broad support confirms that it has become a leader of the national project, and resistance has become the choice of the Palestinian people.”

The Fatah loss will discourage the PA from organizing legislative or presidential elections of any kind from now on. The last legislative elections were scheduled in early 2005.

Hamas’ Al-Wafaa’ Islamic bloc won the Birzeit University election by a large margin, claiming 28 seats on the student council, the first time its candidates have gained control of the body. The Fatah movement won just 18 seats.

Fatah is reportedly trying to distance itself from the PA.

However, the movement’s supporters blame the election loss on the authority’s mistakes, as well as its policies regarding Israel and Palestinian citizens.

In an online post, former Hamas minister Mohammed Al-Barghouti wrote: “It is no longer convincing at all to try to convince people, especially university students, that the Palestinian Authority is one thing and the Fatah movement is another, especially since the head of the Fatah movement — the president of the Palestinian Authority — and the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization is the same president.”

Al-Barghouti said that all the “negatives and misfortunes of the PA are borne and paid for by the Fatah movement.”

In return, he said “all the privileges and benefits of the PA go to a few beneficiaries, most of whom are not from the Fatah movement and have never been among its cadres.”

Fatah needs to take bold decisions and develop a well-thought-out structure if it wants to restore its image and build confidence, he said.

One of the leaders of the Fatah movement in the West Bank, Walid Assaf, a former head of the Wall and Settlement Resistance Commission, wrote: “When the successful are held accountable, and the failures are rewarded, the price will be heavy on Fatah and the national project.”

Ahmed Ghuneim, a prominent Fatah leader in East Jerusalem, told Arab News: “Fatah cannot continue in this way. It is time for a decisive and courageous decision to be taken to stop this collapse and that the central committee bears responsibility for the weakness of Fatah.”

He added: “We in Fatah are paying the price for the failed decisions in the political, governmental, organizational and economic performance of the Palestinian Authority and leadership. This leadership knows and realizes that it is a problem, but they insist that they remain in power and lead us from defeat to defeat.”

However, Lt. Gen. Jibril Rajoub, Fatah central committee secretary-general, told Arab News that a committee meeting on Saturday will review the defeat and take necessary decisions.

“Our experience with this leadership is that they do not assess any loss, and if that happens, they do not take measures but blame the lower levels of the movement for their mistakes.”

Nasser Al-Kidwa, the former Palestinian foreign minister dismissed from Fatah by Abbas after criticizing the PA leader’s policies, told Arab News from his home in France: “The votes that went to Hamas do not necessarily mean that they support its policy, but rather to punish Fatah, which deserves punishment because it has committed enough mistakes to turn Palestinian public opinion against it.”