Engineering graduates gathered again on Sunday to protest in front of the headquarters of the Shuaiba Refinery near Basra in southern Iraq because of the government's failure to respond to their demands to be hired by the oil companies. An earlier protest blocked the road leading to the refinery to prevent employees from entering. Shuaiba is one of the most important oil refining centres in the south.
There have been numerous protests like this across Iraq in recent years. The graduates were in the vanguard of the demonstrators in the October 2019 uprising, demanding a country in which they could receive their basic rights, including the right to work. In recent months, with the increased spread of the coronavirus and rising unemployment, protests have intensified.
On 4 November, hundreds of graduates who had been involved in sit-ins for 120 days organised a peaceful protest march in the streets around the Basra Oil Company to demand jobs. The government's neglect saw the protest grow, and on 19 November a number of graduate protesters closed the entrance to an oil well in an escalation intended to attract attention to their situation, but they were met with complete government silence. Statements have been addressed to the prime minister, the minister of oil, the governorate deputies, the director of Basra Oil, and other companies regarding their status. They asked the officials to keep the promises that they had made.
Graduates from various specialisations have participated in protests and sit-ins demanding work since the 2003 occupation of the country, following which corruption determined appointments to positions in a deep-rooted quota system. The World Bank estimates that the unemployment rate among young people in Iraq is 36 per cent, compared with the national unemployment rate of 16 per cent. Among these unemployed young women and men who are unable to advance themselves and support their families, there are more than 1.5 million who have graduated since 2003 from universities and higher institutes in all specialisms. Regardless of the drop in the level of education received, they are more knowledgeable and capable than those recruited or employed by the ruling blocs and their militias, among them individuals who are illiterate or have forged degrees. This raises a question about the importance of engineering graduates specifically.
The answer is that their demands are unique, as they are the people of a country that was the sixth-largest oil producer in the world in 2019, after the US, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Canada, and China. Their country has the fifth-largest crude reserves in the world, representing 18 per cent of the Middle East's reserves and nearly 9 per cent of global oil reserves. However, when we look at the general condition of the people in the five top countries, in terms of their economic situation, health and social care, and job opportunities, in comparison with Iraq, we can well understand the reasons for the ongoing demonstrations.
What engineering graduates demand is as simple as air to breathe; it is their right to work in their own oil industry, in oil fields that are supposed to belong to them as Iraqi citizens. They are qualified to work in their specialist field for which they have spent years preparing. They must be given the priority to work as of right, not as a favour from foreign oil companies such as America's Exxon Mobil, Britain's BP, and the British-Dutch Royal Dutch Shell.
There are also Chinese and Russian companies dominating the oil fields and imposing the appointment of foreign engineers and workers with Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Filipino nationality, as well as Britons and Americans. Hiring Iraqis falls within the percentage of "locals" hired, not the hiring of indigenous engineers and the owners of the land.
We also see that the Iraqi engineers, technicians, workers, and guards are among the first to lose their jobs as soon as companies make less profit or have their budgets cut. At least 15,000 Iraqi workers were sent home when oil prices fell this year.
The Iraqi regime justifies its inability to recruit all graduates; the deterioration of the economic situation; and the increase in poverty rates that threaten 5.5 million Iraqis (according to the World Bank's Iraq Economic Monitor) by citing the decline in oil prices and the spread of Covid-19. This is simply not true; it is a fabrication to cover up the truth, which is that the quota system used by the corrupt regime and institutions existed long before the pandemic and even before the emergence of Daesh. This is evidenced by the World Bank in its report issued on 1 November, in which it stated, "Poor service delivery and rampant corruption along with soaring unemployment and poverty rates have led to public grievances even before the global pandemic."
It is no secret that Iraq is topping the list of corrupt countries in the world and that the successive occupation governments have not established national production, but have, instead, destroyed what was already there. National exports such as rice, dried fruits, light bulbs, coal tar products, cement, wool, animal skins, copper products, polymeric chemicals, trucks, and auto parts have disappeared, making Iraq one of the least diverse countries in terms of exports. In 2018, only 4.1 per cent of Iraq's exports included anything other than crude oil, down from 8.5 per cent in 2004. The abandonment of farms and factories during the conflict years has greatly weakened Iraq's productive capacity. As a result, the combined share of agriculture and manufacturing in Iraq's GDP has decreased by about three quarters since the late 1980s, according to the World Bank.
Without manufacturing and without agriculture, and with the use of government appointments as a tool to strengthen corrupt parties at the expense of talent and development based on national production and manufacturing, protests across Iraq, especially by graduates, are here to stay. Having unemployed oil engineers in oil-rich Iraq, while foreigners are employed instead, is unacceptable. Real changes must happen, and soon.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.