Iraqi Protests Highlight Growing Instability
On the first day of October, thousands of Iraqis began taking to the streets to protest high unemployment numbers, corruption, poor public services, and an anaemic economy. Iraqi security forces disbanded initial protests, but citizens began coming out in bigger numbers. In response, the Iraqi government reacted with deadly force and brutally crushed the resurgent protests.
From October 1st to October 6th, 108 protesters were killed and thousands more were injured at the hands of Iraqi security forces according to the Iraq Human Rights Commission.
It made a difficult anniversary for Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi who assumed his office in October 2018. In addition to killing over 100 protesters, Abdul-Mahdi also announced a series of assistance packages for low-income residents to stem the tide of protesters.
The government also cut off internet access to limit protest organisation and any further uprisings, a move highly criticised by the UN for convening international human rights law.
For now, the protests have dissipated, in large part thanks to a repressive response by the Iraqi government. But, if the protesters’ cries go unanswered, the government will soon face similar push back.
Source of Protests
The protests in Iraq originate from Iraqis’ discontent with the government’s economic policies which have marginalised the poorest citizens. While Iraq enjoys the fourth largest oil reserve in the world, many Iraqis have not seen that wealth trickle down to them and are expressing their anger at that fact.
According to the World Bank, unemployment has only decreased by 1% in the last decade, and youth unemployment remains at a staggering 16%. Female unemployment has also ballooned to 12%, signaling a deepening economic divide between men and women.
While Iraq’s neighbours are looking to diversify their economy to meet with new demands and the inevitable decline of oil, Iraq is pumping out more than ever, over 4.6 million barrels per day. Despite the increased production, forecasts predict the Iraqi economy will have a dip in annual GDP growth over the next several years.
These combined factors spell a difficult future for Abdul-Mahdi’s government and the unemployed and impoverished Iraqis demanding change. While the current protests have been beaten back violently, an economic downturn will enlarge the fervour and protest numbers.
After violent suppression, Abdul-Mahdi told his countrymen and women on state television, “I will go and meet them without weapons and sit with them for hours to listen to their demands.”
While the protesters’ demands have been quite clear, it is unlikely that Abdul-Mahdi will be able to meet them without radically restructuring Iraq’s economy to favour the Iraqi people over oil company profits.
Since the US-led coalition invaded Iraq 16 years ago, the country has been ravaged and transformed. One constant is the country’s dependence on oil, Iraq’s only noteworthy activity in the international economy over the past decades.
Before the 2003 invasion, Iraq suffered economic ups and downs associated with political events, oil price, periods of strict austerity and heavy lending. But, after the invasion, Iraq shifted economic models from that of brutal dictator Saddam Hussein who let public spending flow to curry support from the public and politically insulate himself and build his power base.
Instead of the public spending and personal corruption of Saddam Hussein, Iraq has since carried out a more American neoliberal oil-dependent economy, one which lines the pockets of Western-backed oil elites and cuts public spending, allowing the free market to control Iraq’s economy.
As current Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi has found this is becoming a tougher sell as many Iraqis continue to wallow in joblessness and economic despair while their country’s most valuable asset is being sold on the world market at a historical rate.
Future Implications for Iraq and the Region
The Middle East’s most powerful regional actor, Saudi Arabia has long been wary about regional unrest in its backyard. Political conflict and calls for economic reform from angry protesters do not help the politically powerful hold on to their power.
But, Saudi Arabia’s opinion on unrest in Iraq largely depends on how hawkish they decide to play mounting tensions with Iran. Some within Saudi Arabia view Iraq as intensely pro-Iran, and if relations with Iran worsen Saudi Arabia may stand to gain from destabilising a perceived Iranian ally in the form of Iraq.
Recent reports do indicate that Saudi Arabia is looking to cool tensions with Iran, making an aggressive role in Iraq unfeasible for the Crown Prince. Instead, Iraq could play a pivotal role in thawing relations between the two regional powers, and the oil-dependent region might stand to gain from a ratcheting down of tension between the two.
In the case of increased Saudi-Iranian relations, once again the policy of stability over all else may dictate more brutal reactions to civilian uprisings. Unfortunately for the Iraqi government and its citizens, when governments opt for the repressive route it usually increases bloodshed and while it may equal short-term economic stability, it’s often at the sacrifice of the long-term future of the country and its population.