TW: military occupation, civil war
Before anything else, I wanted to quickly apologize for the relatively low number of posts in the past few months. I have been experimenting with several new sources, with the aim of broadening the types of coverage that inform my writing here and elsewhere. One of those has been the World Review, which has an interesting reporting style. Their stated goals paint a picture of news that is fact-driven, values importance over mainstream appeal, and free of editorializing – all admirable aspects to their reporting they generally deliver on. That said, this often comes at the price of context (in spite of promises that their objectivity is shored up by expert analysis). The past two week’s news, as far as I’m concerned, underscores this sort of can’t-see-the-forest-through-the-trees effect, that leaves them a very useful news source, but only for a sort of immediate, fact-establishing reporting.
Last week, they published an article that helpfully highlighted the paradox at the heart of modern Iraq – that there is enormous mineral wealth in that country, but that its concentration in certain circles has led to resentment and instability rather than general prosperity and even investment in a shared future. What’s surprising is actually that this is surprising. The article itself treats this as something of a shock, quite literally elevating it to the opening hook of – “Iraq is now a failed state despite its great oil riches which provide more than 90 per cent of government revenue”.
From a historical perspective, there could be little doubt that Iraq’s wealth would remain concentrated even if Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki wasn’t interested in Shia-dominance in government, business, and society in general. The (sometimes literal) infrastructure of an insular elite has nearly a century of legacy to lean on – beginning with the UK-backed Kingdom of Iraq, then the US-backed Ba’athist regime, and most recently the US occupation famous for its focal points of tight security and economic power. Iraqi governance has been geared towards inegalitarian political and economical realities through decades of foreign influence and subsequent machines in local politics.
Beyond that though, the reality of 90 percent of the government’s revenue coming mineral extraction and export hardly seems like a counterbalance to that very real and very recent history of inequality. While shared resources are not necessarily a definitive source of conflict, the “resource curse” perspective on productive areas of the world remains fairly common. That’s with good reason, not only because of the instability that seems to linger in most parts of the world economically-centered on mineral extraction, but because of how those industries work. Some labor is required, but rarely enough to do more than make a portion of the population see the benefits of successful extraction and exportation.
The primary goal of states, companies, and individuals dependent on the success of those sorts of local economies tends to be security against any ill-wishers from the rest of society. An Iraq dotted with Bremer Walls and compounds of the well-to-do is one that only biases them more towards that sort of security-focused strategy, with profits even furthered maximized by keeping them contained within an incredibly small population. The very rhetoric of the Sunni-supremacist insurgency in northern and western Iraq reflects that reality, as since 2012 they have called for “destroying the walls” – meaning not only the ushering in of a post-state neo-caliphate (destroying many border boundaries), but the current targeting of these islands of security and wealth in Iraq (and groups seen as politically aligned with them, or simply their coreligionists).
(Bremer Walls in Iraq, from here.)
In short, the history of Iraq and its current dependency on resource extraction and export for income aren’t at odds with each other by a long shot, but have worked together to reinforce an inherently unequal political, economic, and social reality. That modern Iraq is an example of that which can’t absorb the subsequent sectarian and ethnic hostility or negotiate a new sort of society is the actual issue here. With a recent article whose title just gushes with excitement that newly discovered gas deposits in Mozambique will create a brighter future for the country (but which ironically the article itself admits is “at the mercy of a weak and corrupt government” concentrated in a completely different part of the country from the gas-rich region), it’s unclear that the World Review has learned its lesson about high expectations and extraction-based economies.