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.”


Yemeni army reports 4,276 Houthi truce violations

Yemeni army reinforcements arrive to join fighters loyal to Yemen's government in Marib on November 16, 2021. (AFP)
Yemeni army reinforcements arrive to join fighters loyal to Yemen's government in Marib on November 16, 2021. (AFP)
Updated 23 May 2022

Yemeni army reports 4,276 Houthi truce violations

Yemeni army reinforcements arrive to join fighters loyal to Yemen's government in Marib on November 16, 2021. (AFP)
  • Militia attacks continue on government troops in Marib, Taiz, Saada and Hajjah

AL-MUKALLA: Yemen’s army has said that the Iran-backed Houthis have violated a UN-brokered truce more than 4,276 times since day one by mobilizing fighters and launching drone and missile attacks on government troops, even as the militia indicated its acceptance of its renewal.

The truce, which is the longest since the war began, came into effect on April 2 and has led to reduced violence and deaths across the country, the UN said.

But the Yemeni army said the Houthis continued to gather heavy artillery, military vehicles, and fighters outside the strategic city of Marib, had attacked government troops in Marib, Taiz, Saada, and Hajjah, and created new military outposts.

Members of Yemen’s government forces search for explosive devices in a house in the village of Hays in the western province of Hodeida on Monday. (AFP)

“The Houthis are challenging the truce and international resolutions. They have not adhered to the truce,” Maj. Gen. Abdu Abdullah Majili, an army spokesperson, told Arab News on Monday.  

FASTFACT

The UN’s Yemen envoy Hans Grundberg is pushing the government and militia to extend the truce and put into place its unfulfilled components, including opening roads in Taiz and other provinces.

The Houthi violations come as the UN’s Yemen envoy Hans Grundberg pushes the government and militia to extend the truce and put into place its unfulfilled components, including opening roads in Taiz and other provinces.

On Sunday, the head of the Houthi Supreme Political Council, Mahdi Al-Mashat, said the movement would accept an extension of the truce with its opponents, boosting hopes of stopping hostilities across the country for another two or three months.

“We affirm that we are not against extending the truce, but what is not possible is the acceptance of any truce in which the suffering of our people continues,” the Houthi leader said.

In Aden, the head of Yemen’s Presidential Leadership Council, Rashad Al-Alimi, also expressed his support on Saturday for current efforts by international mediators to extend the truce.

At the same time, activists and rights groups intensified their campaigns on the ground and on social media to highlight the grave consequences of the Houthi siege on thousands of Taiz residents.

The Abductees Mothers’ Association, an umbrella group for relatives of those abducted in Yemen, said Sunday that checkpoints manned by the Houthis outside Taiz had seized 417 people seeking to enter or leave the city since the beginning of the war.

The Houthis have laid a siege on Yemen’s third-largest city since early 2015 after failing to seize control of it due to strong resistance from troops and local fighters.

The Houthis barred people from driving through the main roads, deployed snipers, and planted landmines, forcing people into using dangerous and unpaved roads.  

“Civilians in #Taiz are forced to use alternative long, narrow, winding, and unsafe routes, which caused a lot of accidents that killed and injured hundreds of victims,” tweeted the American Center for Justice, a rights group established by Yemeni activists. It added that Houthi snipers indiscriminately gunned down civilians while they carried out their everyday activities.

“Most of the children sniped by Houthi snipers were targeted while fetching water, grazing the sheep, playing near their homes, or returning from schools,” the organization said.


Zaghari-Ratcliffe ‘was forced to sign false confession at airport’

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. (AFP)
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. (AFP)
Updated 23 May 2022

Zaghari-Ratcliffe ‘was forced to sign false confession at airport’

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. (AFP)
  • It’s a tool. So I am sure they will show that some day

LONDON: A British-Iranian charity worker who was detained in Tehran for almost six years says she was forced by Iranian officials to sign a false confession to spying before she was freed two months ago.
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe said British government officials were present at Tehran airport when “under duress” she signed the false admission to spying.
She said she was told by Iranian officials that “you won’t be able to get on the plane” unless she signed.
“The whole thing of me signing the forced confession was filmed,” Zaghari-Ratcliffe told the BBC in an interview broadcast on Monday.
“It’s a tool. So I’m sure they will show that some day.”
Opposition Labour Party lawmaker Tulip Siddiq, who represents Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s home district in London, said the revelation raised “serious questions” for the British government.
She said Foreign Secretary Liz Truss “must set out in Parliament what she knew about this shocking revelation and what consequences it could have for my constituent.”
Zaghari-Ratcliffe was detained at Tehran’s airport in April 2016 as she was returning home to Britain after visiting family in Iran. She was employed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of the news agency, but she was on vacation at the time of her arrest.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe was sentenced to five years in prison after she was convicted of plotting the overthrow of Iran’s government, a charge that she, her supporters and rights groups denied.
She had been under house arrest at her parents’ home in Tehran for the last two years.
She and another dual citizen, Anoosheh Ashoori, were released and flown back to the UK in March.
Their release came after Britain paid a £400 million ($503 million) debt to Iran stemming from a dispute over tanks that were ordered in the 1970s but were never delivered.


Tunisian union calls national strike over wages and the economy

Tunisian union calls national strike over wages and the economy. (AFP)
Tunisian union calls national strike over wages and the economy. (AFP)
Updated 23 May 2022

Tunisian union calls national strike over wages and the economy

Tunisian union calls national strike over wages and the economy. (AFP)
  • The president’s opponents accuse him of undermining the democratic gains of the 2011 revolution that triggered the Arab spring, but he says his moves were legal and needed to save Tunisia from a prolonged political crisis

TUNIS: Tunisia’s labor union said on Monday it would hold a national strike over wages and the economy after refusing to take part in a limited dialogue proposed by the president as he rewrites the constitution.
With more than a million members, the UGTT is Tunisia’s most powerful political force and its call for a strike may present the biggest challenge yet to President Kais Saied after his seizure of broad powers and moves to one-man rule.
Saied has focused on his political agenda since last summer when he brushed aside the parliament and discounted most of Tunisia’s democratic constitution to say he would rule by decree despite a gathering economic crisis.
The president’s opponents accuse him of undermining the democratic gains of the 2011 revolution that triggered the Arab spring, but he says his moves were legal and needed to save Tunisia from a prolonged political crisis.
The union has demanded a meaningful national dialogue on both political and economic reforms, but it rejected Saied’s proposal that it join a small advisory group of other civil society organizations that could submit reform ideas.

BACKGROUND

President Kais Saied’s government is in talks with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout but the labor union has rejected proposed spending cuts and instead wants wage increases for state workers.

Saied said last week that political parties would be barred from a role in forming the new constitution, which would replace the 2014 document that emerged from an inclusive debate among Tunisia’s main political factions and social organizations.
“We reject any formal dialogue in which roles are determined unilaterally and from which civil and political forces are excluded,” UGTT spokesperson Sami Tahri said.
Tunisia’s major political parties pledged to fight Saied’s decision to exclude them from key political reforms including the drafting of a new constitution and accused him of seeking to consolidate autocratic rule. Achaab, the newspaper of the union, said that Saied met with the UGTT leader on Sunday and informed him that he insisted that the dialogue will be in its current formula that he proposed.
The date of the strike, by UGTT members working in public services and state companies, will be announced later, Tahri said.
Saied’s government is in talks with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout, seen as necessary to ward off national bankruptcy, but the UGTT has rejected proposed spending cuts and instead wants wage increases for state workers.


More hardship as new sandstorm engulfs parts of Middle East

More hardship as new sandstorm engulfs parts of Middle East
Updated 23 May 2022

More hardship as new sandstorm engulfs parts of Middle East

More hardship as new sandstorm engulfs parts of Middle East
  • It is the latest in a series of unprecedented nearly back-to-back sandstorms this year that have bewildered residents and raised alarm among experts
  • Geoarchaeologist Jaafar Jotheri: ‘Its a region-wide issue but each country has a different degree of vulnerability and weakness’

BAGHDAD: A sandstorm blanketed parts of the Middle East on Monday, including Iraq, Syria and Iran, sending people to hospitals and disrupting flights in some places.
It was the latest in a series of unprecedented nearly back-to-back sandstorms this year that have bewildered residents and raised alarm among experts and officials, who blame climate change and poor governmental regulations.
From Riyadh to Tehran, bright orange skies and a thick veil of grit signaled yet another stormy day Monday. Sandstorms are typical in late spring and summer, spurred by seasonal winds. But this year they have occurred nearly every week in Iraq since March.
Iraqi authorities declared the day a national holiday, urging government workers and residents to stay home in anticipation of the 10th storm to hit the country in the last two months. The Health Ministry stockpiled cannisters of oxygen at facilities in hard-hit areas, according to a statement.
The storms have sent thousands to hospitals and resulted in at least one death in Iraq and three in Syria’s east.
“Its a region-wide issue but each country has a different degree of vulnerability and weakness,” said Jaafar Jotheri, a geoarchaeologist at the University of Al-Qadisiyah in Baghdad.
In Syria, medical departments were put on alert as the sandstorm hit the eastern province of Deir Ezzor that borders Iraq, Syrian state TV said. Earlier this month, a similar storm in the region left at least three people dead and hundreds were hospitalized with breathing problems.
Dr. Bashar Shouaybi, head of the Health Ministry’s office in Deir Ezzor, told state TV that hospitals were prepared and ambulances were on standby. He said they have acquired an additional 850 oxygen tanks and medicine needed to deal with patients who have asthma.
Severe sandstorms have also blanketed parts of Iran, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia this month.
For the second time this month, Kuwait International Airport suspended all flights Monday because of the dust. Video showed largely empty streets with poor visibility.
Saudi Arabia’s meteorological association reported that visibility would drop to zero on the roads in Riyadh, the capital, this week. Officials warned drivers to go slowly. Emergency rooms in the city were flooded with 1,285 patients this month complaining they couldn’t breathe properly.
Iran last week shut down schools and government offices in the capital of Tehran over a sandstorm that swept the country. It hit hardest in the nation’s southwest desert region of Khuzestan, where over 800 people sought treatment for breathing difficulties. Dozens of flights out of western Iran were canceled or delayed.
Blame over the dust storms and heavy air pollution has mounted, with a prominent environmental expert telling local media that climate change, drought and government mismanagement of water resources are responsible for the increase in sandstorms. Iran has drained its wetlands for farming — a common practice known to produce dust in the region.
Alireza Shariat, the head of an association of Iranian water engineers, told Iran’s semiofficial ILNA news agency last month that he expected extensive dust storms to become an “annual springtime phenomenon” in a way Iran has never seen before.
In Iraq, desertification exacerbated by record-low rainfall is adding to the intensity of storms, said Jotheri, the geoarchaeologist. In a low-lying country with plenty of desert regions, the impact is almost double, he said.
“Because of 17 years of mismanagement of water and urbanization, Iraq lost more than two thirds of its green cover,” he said. “That is why Iraqis are complaining more than their neighbors about the sandstorms in their areas.”


Lebanese authorities begin removing barriers around parliament after elections

Lebanese police stand guard at the entrance of the Lebanese parliament in Beirut on Monday. (AFP)
Lebanese police stand guard at the entrance of the Lebanese parliament in Beirut on Monday. (AFP)
Updated 23 May 2022

Lebanese authorities begin removing barriers around parliament after elections

Lebanese police stand guard at the entrance of the Lebanese parliament in Beirut on Monday. (AFP)
  • New MPs call for restrictions to be eased before first session of the house

BEIRUT: Lebanese authorities on Monday began removing concrete barriers around the country’s parliament building after the election of former protesters as MPs.

The security measures had been put in place at the outbreak of massive anti-government protests in 2019. They are to be relaxed following the election of a dozen reformist newcomers to the 128-member legislature, including some who had taken part in the protest movement.

Some of the new MPs had called for the restrictions to be eased before they attended the first session of the new parliament.

Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi attended the start of the work yesterday afternoon.

The clearing will be completed before the next parliament session is held, a statement from House Speaker Nabih Berri’s office said.

The move comes after the election of 15 MPs from the Forces of Change group, which was demonstrating in the streets around parliament, in addition to a number of independent MPs.

Beirut MP Ibrahim Mneimneh, from the Forces of Change, said: “There is no need for the barriers placed around the people’s house because it is for the people. They are needless barriers.”

He said that the measures decided by Berri were the result of the traditional ruling forces realizing “the decline of their popularity, so they decided to respond to the popular demands.”

MP Waddah Sadiq, a former protester, said the fences around parliament are a separation wall. “Today, parliament represents the people who demand change, so they decided to ease the procedures,” Sadiq sad.

Sadiq said that the economic and living crises “are increasing, and people may turn to a state of rejection again. We need the pressure to address them.”

He said that the previous government did not take any effective handling measures.

The plan approved by the government included neither recovery nor economy, said the MP. “Therefore, we are entering a difficult phase and we will be on the side of the people.”

MP Elias Jarada, an ophthalmologist from the southern town of Ibl Al-Saqi, called the "doctor of the poor," said that “the parliament is the house of the people, and there are no fences that can separate the representatives of the nation and the citizens.”

He said that all the barriers that prevent people from entering Nejmeh Square must be removed before the MPs are invited to any session.

Ali Hamdan, the media adviser to the parliamentary speaker, told Arab News that “these measures are not an indication of excessive confidence. Rather, elections were held and the results have brought representatives of the protesters to parliament.”

He said: “These people represent part of the street, and you may call them a movement, an uprising or a change.”

He said the speaker had decided to take a step to reduce security measures, but they “will not be completely lifted around the parliament.”

He said that some in Lebanon still feared security setbacks.

“There are successive crises, including the customs dollar and the rise in telecom prices, and we witnessed what happened in Greece and Cyprus.”

The area around the building had been transformed by concrete walls that blocked all the roads leading to Nejmeh Square.

Hotels in the area closed as a result of the damages they suffered from each wave of popular protests targeting parliament since Oct. 17, 2019.

Institutions, companies and shops all moved out of the area after it became difficult to reach them. The area turned into a ghost town as a result of power outages and the absence of people.

Parliament meetings there were suspended after the explosion of the port of Beirut on Aug. 4, 2020, which damaged the building.

The parliament moved its meetings temporarily to the UNESCO Palace, which is on the western-south edge of the capital.

While the temporary location provided a spacious hall, comfortable seats and social distancing as required during the pandemic, it did not provide electronic voting for deputies or the electronic list for the attendance of deputies.

Bechara Asmar, head of General Labor Union, said he was concerned about “the continuation of sterile debates while crises become more complex.”