Protests and political violence continues to plague Basra, Iraq’s southernmost province. The province is largely populated by Iraq’s Shia majority, which has dominated Iraq’s post-2003 political order. Basra’s oil fields are the primary source of Iraq’s oil exports and proven oil reserves and Basra is home to Iraq’s only port. Despite all of these promising conditions, Basra continues to suffer from government neglect, resulting in high levels of unemployment and lack of basic services such as clean water and electricity. To understand more about the ongoing protests in Basra and the region’s relationship with Baghdad, we spoke to Benedict Robin D’Cruz, a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh who specializes in Iraq and Shia politics and runs the website “Iraq After Occupation.” This is part 2 of a two-part interview with Benedict. The first part can be found here.
Iraq’s post-2003 political order is often seen as having greatly benefited Iraq’s previously marginalized Shia majority. The majority-Shia Basra Province seems to belie these claims. Despite being home to Iraq’s only port and generating more than 90% of Iraq’s oil exports, the province does not appear to see much benefit in terms of jobs, basic services, and economic development. What explains Basra’s neglect, particularly under the post-2003 political order?
Resources that had been used to pacify tribes and criminal gangs in Basra diminished and this scarcity led to rising levels of violence.
The post-2003 gains for ordinary Iraqi Shi’a have been symbolic more than they have been material-economic. This is not to downplay the value of symbolic gains. The flourishing of Shi’i cultural practices, religious rites, the restoration of Najaf as a center of Shi’i religious learning and authority, and the renewed dignity attached to Shi’i identity in the Iraqi public sphere and politics, are all important gains of the post-2003 order.
However, Iraqis are also concerned with the dignity that attaches to the basic material conditions of daily life, and here the post-2003 record has been disastrous. Iraq’s political economy has entrenched corruption and inefficiency, it has also politicized and spurred growth in the public sector. Public sector wages, pensions and other benefits suck up resources that could be spent on services and infrastructure investment. This system also foregrounds the state and political elite as the objects of claims by citizens looking for the benefits of public sector employment. When resources dry up, they become the focus of anger and discontent.
This dynamic was particularly marked in Basra from 2014. During this period an oil price slump and the Islamic State conflict combined to put pressure on budgets and resources for patronage networks dried up. Basra’s political elites have also institutionalized the patronage networks linked into the oil sector in the province, controlling jobs, contracts and other benefits in exchange for bribes. (Incidentally, the Oil and Gas Committee that sits at the heart of this system is chaired by Ali Shaddad who is now being lined up to replace current Basra governor Asaad al-Eidani.) These rents were also squeezed by falling oil prices. Resources that had been used to pacify tribes and criminal gangs diminished and this scarcity led to rising levels of violence. The Islamic State conflict also led the central government to further centralize resource control, taking back control of Basra’s petrodollar allocation (calculated as a fixed price per barrel). This has been another bone of contention between the province and Baghdad.
Ordinary citizens who cannot buy into these systems are excluded, politically and economically. This has nothing to do with sect, it is simply a function of corruption and a clientelist political economy. In Basra, youth unemployment is something like 50% and half the population is under 25. This is a resource-rich province that provided a significant proportion of men fighting in the war against Islamic State. Unsurprisingly, the locals feel neglected and cheated, despairing of both the central government and local political leadership.
The militias are establishing the limits of acceptable resistance, and this campaign of intimidation has been extremely effective.
Since July, at least one lawyer and two prominent activists have been assassinated by unknown gunmen in Basra, including protest organizer Sheik Wissam al-Ghrawi and human rights defender Suad al-Ali. Have there been any arrests related to these crimes, and if not, why? What are you hearing from ground about the impact of these crimes or the response of public officials and civil society?
I think this has been an under-reported aspect of the post-protest fallout in Basra. In addition to the cases you mention, there have been a string of assassinations, attempted assassinations, and arrests of activists and individuals involved in the protests. From what I’ve seen, there have been no arrests although local security chiefs have indicated they have a good idea of the responsible parties.
There were also threatening messages in Iranian state media which targeted Basra-based activists, highlighting their supposed collusion with the US Consulate in Basra. This was following protesters’ attack on the Iranian consulate. I’ve tracked down some of these activists and have spoken to them about the situation. They are certainly very scared for their safety, relying on tribal connections for protection. Some of those who have the means have left Basra altogether.
The militias are establishing the limits of acceptable resistance, and this campaign of intimidation has been extremely effective. Protests continue in Basra, but on a far smaller scale and their focus is on the institutions of local government (mainly at the new temporary government building in al-Ma’qil). Nobody has dared to target party or militia offices in recent months.
Ordinary citizens who cannot buy into these systems are excluded, politically and economically. This has nothing to do with sect, it is simply a function of corruption and a clientelist political economy.
Following the height of Basra’s protests last September, representatives of then-Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi promised to create 10,000 jobs for residents in Basra. Has there been any progress in creating those jobs or any signs that Iraq’s new government under PM Adil Abdul-Mahdi will follow through on that promise?
The issue around the 10,000 jobs that were promised remains unresolved at this stage. Local media reported there was upwards of 60,000 applications submitted, and that has likely only risen since. But it appears the whole process has been mired in chaos (further anger was sparked when many of the applications were reportedly found dumped in the rubbish outside government offices). The 10,000 jobs promise was never taken very seriously by Basrawis. If anything, it was just symbolic of the sort of feckless and superficial political response to the protests, it was widely satirized and mocked on social media.
What should the Iraqi central government and local authorities do to address the crisis in Basra and provide long-term solutions to the 4.5 million residents of the province?
The problems facing Basra are extraordinarily complex. For instance, on the political and administrative front there is a breakdown in the functioning of the federal-provincial dynamic. Baghdad retains control over revenue collection, but the federal government also claims to have devolved the functions for providing services to the province. In reality, the Provincial Council has very little power to enact the changes required, even if it had the political will, but it bears the brunt of local discontent nevertheless.
The parties have also used the public sector to build patronage networks, and public sector employment massively expanded post-2003 growing from 1.2 million to over 3 million by 2015. The public wage bill has grown to about 30% of government expenditure. This has created a growing divide between those on the government’s payroll and those outside this system. Many of the protests in Basra are about graduates and workers outside the public sector demanding inclusion in the system and the benefits that flow from this.
These are just two areas that need attention, but identifying problems is far easier than finding solutions. In 2019, I will be starting a research project affiliated with the London School of Economics that will address the dynamics of civil unrest in Basra and hopefully make some substantive recommendations on possible routes forward.