The Politics of Unemployment in Basra: Spotlight on the Oil Sector

J. Mac Skelton and Zmkan Ali Saleem

Created 03/31/2020

In Basra’s mass protests of 2018, unemployment was central to the rhetoric and mobilization strategies of all the key political actors – protesters, government officials, party elites, and tribal leaders. Basrawi protesters chanted slogans about rampant joblessness – first in small disjointed groups and ultimately coalescing into massive crowds that attacked nearly every significant government and party building.

Meanwhile members of the provincial council and party leaders cast blame on foreign workers taking the jobs of Basrawis in oil companies. Many of the protest movement leaders retrospectively call the summer demonstrations of 2018 the “protests of unemployment.” How did unemployment – particularly in relation to the oil sector – become a  central pillar of the protest movement, and what if anything has the government done to formulate a program to address joblessness and thereby stem the tide of popular discontent?

Based on 35 interviews with key figures in Basra’s government, oil sector, and civil society (conducted by the authors in Basra during March–May 2019) as well as an extensive desk review of media and government sources, this policy report addresses the roots of the unemployment problem, the government response to the problem, and its relevance to the future of the protest movement. It is argued that the existing analysis on unemployment in Basra has over-emphasized macro-structural causes – a growing youth bulge, the lowered oil prices, and the influx of foreign workers and/or foreign product into markets – and underappreciated the impact of local political economic dynamics and political rhetoric unique to Basra as Iraq’s economic and energy hub. The macro-level forces are of course relevant; however, they are not sufficient to explain how unemployment has and will remain an explosive issue in Basra for years to come.



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