Coronavirus and corruption put Iraq’s political system in the last chance saloon
The collapse in oil prices as a result of the coronavirus has been one of the most unwelcome and damaging side effects of the global pandemic for the Middle East in particular.
A number of countries reliant on oil and gas for export now find their prize commodity plummeting in value, and along with it their ability to budget effectively. Many Gulf countries have large currency reserves and gargantuan sovereign wealth funds to fall back on, which should just about see them through the crisis, but even they have all made painful cuts that will depress economic growth, possibly for years.
Iraq however does not have these luxuries. Having lurched from security crisis, to economic crisis and back again since the fall of Saddam Hussain in 2003, the country is now heading for a catastrophe. Iraq has experienced mass protests for the past two years as the political system has struggled with declining oil revenues, and an inability by the central government to deliver on the basic needs of the people. Iraq’s squabbling and divided political parties have struggled to reach consensus around a new prime minister after Adel Abdul Mahdi resigned following his government’s wholly inept and brutal response to mass protests earlier this year. A new Prime Minister designate is in place, but I wouldn’t bet on him lasting long.
Iraq is truly in a sorry state, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that the severe economic impact of the coronavirus means the entire political system now teeters on the verge of collapse.
There are many people working in the system who understand the problem. Iraq has some very capable ministers and intelligent individuals working in Baghdad and also in Erbil for the Kurdistan Regional Government. So the issue isn’t brainpower, or lack of human resources. The real issue lies in the self-interested nature of Iraq’s political parties who fight for control over central resources, so that they can enrich themselves and distribute cash in the form of patronage to secure social and political control over their respective support bases. In short political power equals money, and in Iraq’s zero-sum politics, that means not losing out.
But now there isn’t much money left, and Iraq’s political structures are struggling to cope with a perfect storm of corruption, bloated inefficient government, and a rapidly expanding population who have more or less given up any hope that their politicians can do much for them.
For many Iraqis this will probably not be all that shocking. Iraqis are a hardy lot who have lived through decades of war, sanctions and civil strife and have managed to persevere through it all. There is a grim strength and resilience that has developed among the population, most Iraqis know how to save for a rainy day and budget accordingly, having learned to put up with non-payment of salaries, or total breakdowns in security disrupting commerce and everyday life.
But just because Iraqis can cope with a dysfunctional system doesn’t mean that they should. The country’s young population in particular have grown fed up of the excuses, the infighting and the corruption, and they want something better. A desire for running water and electricity is the bare minimum, but in some areas of the country the government cannot seem to provide even this, let alone a job, and stable conditions for economic growth. It isn’t too much to ask.
The truth is that unless things change now then it will soon be all over for Iraq’s political system, which enriches itself at every opportunity, while failing to do even the simple things right. Once the lockdowns imposed by the coronavirus are over, Iraqi youth will no doubt take to the streets once again, only to be killed in their hundreds by a combination of incompetent security forces, and greedy Iranian-backed militiamen.
There is no doubt that much of Iraq’s sorry situation stems back to the years of US-led occupation, made worse by the way in which the Obama administration withdrew too soon before its institutions were strong enough to hold the country together. This is particularly the case with Iraq’s military which is still a shadow of its former self after nearly collapsing in the face of the ISIS onslaught in 2014. In 2003 the coalition broke the country and failed to stay long enough to ensure that it was sufficiently repaired. The fact that many Americans and westerners are now “bored” with the Middle East and its problems is deeply unfair to Iraqis.
But we are where we are, and the sad fact that Iraq’s neighbors and western governments are also struggling to deal with coronavirus means that no one will come to help. In Iraq’s hour of need, no one is listening, but the need for assistance has never been greater.