When the Audience Disagrees: A Conversation with the Iraqi Ambassador to the United Nations

 

Photo by Anja Niedringhaus
Photo by Anja Niedringhaus

The environment of the Boston University Trustee Room was too inorganic for the event at hand; with crystal chandeliers, damask wallpaper, and heavy drapes obscuring the ninth-floor view of greater Boston, it seemed more appropriate for weddings and luncheons than an academic discussion over the future of a country. However, when Mohammad al-Hakim, the current United Nations Ambassador for the Republic of Iraq and a prominent name in the history and reestablishment of the country, took to the podium, that discussion was number one on the scheduled agenda.

As soon as al-Hakim began to speak, his optimism about the future of Iraq was so convincing that it was hard to believe anything at all could still be amiss in the country. He immediately acknowledged (and dismissed) the 24-year authoritarian regime of Saddam Hussein and the recent characterization of Iraq as a failing state, and instead replaced it with tales of economic prosperity, bureaucratic establishments, and complex civil societies that are bringing about democracy and reform the likes of which the country has never seen.  He is a politician to the fullest, a cross somewhere between an idealistic scholar and a pragmatic legislator; someone whose role in government makes it such that a failure of his country would translate as an unacceptable personal failure as well. However, his rhetoric was soon met with the unflinching challenges of an audience comprised of cynical students and jaded academics: they questioned everything from the stability of the economy to the legitimacy of the government, and hardly seemed content with any of the given answers. If anything was certain by the end of the conversation between the audience and the ambassador, it was that Iraq currently sits at a precipice; on one side is a failed statehood that would mean disaster for the United States and Middle East, while on the other is a daunting yet possible success that could establish Iraq as one of the strongest states in the Middle East.

In no flowery language, al-Hakim made it clear that Iraq’s potential is tied directly to its economic success. According to al-Hakim, Iraq’s state revenue in 2003 (right after the fall of Saddam Hussein) was essentially $0. Now, it exists at around $83 billion a year and rising. Although crippled by nearly $125 billion in foreign debt, most of it was forgiven by the generosity of the West, China, and Russia.  Currently, Iraq is working with the Kuwaitis to repay all remaining debts (estimated at $21 billion) through an automatic monthly installment plan.[1] Because of the recent growth of Iraqi GDP, al-Hakim claimed that many (though not all) Iraqis are considered wealthy by international standards and that Iraq sits comfortably as a middle-class state.

Moving away from economic issues, al-Hakim pointed to Iraq’s other great strength as its post-Hussein government and its revered constitution. To be sure, these are points that are hard to contest: with a (technically) functioning parliamentary system and a constitution that borrows from the United States by embracing core themes of federalism, democracy and equality for all, on paper, Iraq seems to be the example of what a peaceful Middle East country could be. [2][3] By establishing freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion for minorities, and by recognizing the Kurdish government in the northern part of the country, the constitution is intended to create peace through secular policies of acceptance of difference, much like what Western nations have been pushing for in the Middle East for years.

Rounding out the merits of his country, al-Hakim outlined the prominence of social freedoms for women in the new Iraqi state and claimed that civil society is developing into a complex, multi-faceted system of organization throughout the country.  Using Iraq’s centralized education system (performance in high school is directly linked to which university a student attends, etc.), he explained that more women are entering top-tier universities than men are, and that social and community organizers are thriving.

However, claims such as these are only impressive so long as no one challenges them. Unfortunately for al-Hakim, the challengers came in droves. Where was this information coming from? Why are women not included under the “equality” section of the constitution? What was the government doing about abuses in Fallujah? Were Kurds actually being given their sovereignty and allowed representation in the state legislature, or is it all rhetoric? The questions got to the point, and it was easy to detect the notes of disdain undercutting a majority of them.

Although all of the concerns raised by the audience were legitimate, it seems as if the most pressing questions were economic ones. After all, Iraq imposes a flat income tax that hovers around 3-5 percent of total assets, and often only truly taxes those who are employed with the Iraqi government.[4] According to the figures presented by al-Hakim on behalf of the Minister of Finance for the State of Iraq, about 80 percent of governmental income is based on oil sales. For quite obvious reasons, this is a double-edged sword for countries seeking long-term success: although the Iraqi oil fields are estimated to hold around 150 billion barrels of oil, this oil as an economic asset lasts only so long as, well, the oil does.[5]

In an ideal world, Iraq would be able to take full advantage of its oil-producing capabilities to strengthen government income, undertake radical infrastructure and development projects, lower tax barriers to attract foreign investment, and eventually make terrorism in the fringes of the country unsustainable.  With a strong educational system in place, Iraq has the skeleton of an educational infrastructure that could allow it to smoothly transition into a service-based economy. Ideally, Iraq would adopt such progressive measures and use its oil money only as a springboard to more sustainable economic driving forces.  It is a foregone conclusion that Iraq will one day either run out of oil or be underwhelmed by demand as conservation and alternative fuel sources are adopted, and it could be stated that the economic success of the country is directly related to how realistically it values its oil reserves. Undoubtedly, Iraq’s geopolitical factors alone are enough to help drive the country economically.  However, it is necessary to recognize that oil should not consistently be relied upon as the best of these geopolitical economic stimulators simply because it is easy and profitable.

Similarly, Iraq’s development and economic success relies on how well the government actually treats issues of gender inequality socially, economically, and politically. Although al-Hakim’s claims about the status of women seems to be on par with the status of women in countries such as the United States, data proves that when it comes to women, Iraq is still very much a conservative state. According to two separate reports from the United Nations, female enrollment in both primary and secondary school is about 10 percent lower than it is for males; of those who were not permitted an education, over 40 percent state that the reason was family refusal; female literacy rates are lower than male literacy rates, and are lower than that of many developed countries.[6][7] As women age, the statistics do not improve: domestic violence concerns (including sex trafficking and honor killings) affect nearly 50 percent of women; unemployment for women interested in work is 21 percent, compared to 11 percent of men; the labor force is considered to be 73 percent male; female-headed households are considered one of the most “targeted” segments of the population and usually face overwhelming poverty and insecurity.[8]

It is important, however, to distinguish that these statistics are of complex causation and are not solely the fault of the Iraqi government: after thousands of years of empire, war, religion, and social stratification, the current social issues facing Iraq are the result of a complex web of religion, seclusion, and misinformation. Furthermore, the issue of addressing them becomes increasingly difficult as the fine line between custom/culture and women’s rights is blurred in the eyes of Islam and local populations. What is certain, however, is that if the government wishes to promote stability, progression, and a strong economic backbone, their inclusion of women is an absolute must. It is difficult to ascertain whether or not al-Hakim’s claims about women in higher education are true or not, but based off of UN data it does not seem as if they are as optimistic as initially claimed. In this instance, the critiques of one audience member in particular seem especially potent: as long as women are not considered equal under Iraqi law, their oppression will continue and the multipliers of such legislation (or lack thereof) will be notable.

Finally, at the crosshairs of economics and society lies the fate of Iraqi civil society. Unfortunately, al-Hakim’s claims again seem to fall on the side of government rhetoric, as those community organizers involved in the Iraqi civil movement are continually critical of the Iraqi government.  They claim that the administration of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has a “hatred” for civil society organizations and that they are often targeted and dismantled by claims that they harbor terrorist activity.[8] As a result, these organizations are often underfunded victims of violence who struggle to reach accreditation under the specificity of new Iraqi laws governing NGO qualifications.

However, despite the gap between female and male education statistics, Iraqi society is, overall, highly educated and very willing to partake in meaningful civil organizations.[9] Despite alleged government distrust and “hatred” of civil groups, they have truthfully been able to cultivate a stream of moderate secularists who have had great success at engaging in dialogue with moderate Islamist political candidates throughout the country.[8] According to reports at Al-Monitor, if these groups were able to acquire the kind of coalition faction that is common of parliamentary legislatures, then they could potentially out-run the radical candidates who have been a thorn in the side of the government for quite some time. As it stands, the state of civil society in Iraq is struggling, though also evident. It is hard to ascertain exactly in which direction it will go, but it’s hopeful (and probable) that it will continue to gain strength in a majority of the country. With the calls for social engagement and improvement that were the hallmarks of the Arab Spring, it is likely that similar sentiments will guide Iraqi civil society going forward.

Clearly, even the mention of the word “Iraq” comes with a lot of opinions, misunderstandings, and confusion about a country that is so necessary to the future of a successful Middle East. On one hand, it is one of the most constitutionally progressive countries in a diverse region divided by authoritarianism; an oil rich country whose strategic location is of much value to foreign investors focused on emerging markets; a country whose population is largely educated and loud in their demands for reform. On the other, it is a country wracked by inequality, idealism, and misunderstanding; an indebted country whose economic future is uncertainly held in the hands of a government that has not yet proven successful; a country still recovering from years of fundamentalism and authoritarianism, the legacies of which are still being felt.  On top of it all is the power struggle that undercuts the rest of the post-Arab Spring Middle East, a region of immense economic and political consideration for the rest of the world. It is difficult to say which direction a country will take (especially one as diverse and tense as Iraq is presently), but politicians such as al-Hakim do work to inspire confidence in those who are otherwise entirely doubtful of the ability of Iraq to overcome its most pressing issues.

 

Kaitlin Beegle

Political Science and International Affairs ’18

Twitter handle: @beegle_k

 

References:

[1] Abdelgayoum, Bashir. “Iraq: Building Civil Society.” Nouvelles. Accessed March 27, 2014. https://www.alternatives.ca/en/project-campaign/iraq-building-civil-society.

[2] Adrash, Kadhim, and Nayla Razzouk. “Iraq Revises Its Oil Reserves to 150 Billion Barrels.” Bloomberg.com. April 10, 2013. Accessed March 27, 2014.

[3] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-04-10/iraq-revises-its-oil-reserves-to-150-billion-barrels.html.

[4] Al-Tamimi, Amer Diab. “Iraqi Debt to Kuwait May Become Fruitful Business Partnernship – Al-Monitor: The Pulse of the Middle East.” Al-Monitor. February 2013. Accessed March 27, 2014. http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/business/2012/04/iraqs-debts-to-kuwait-why-not-tu.html.

[5] Ernst and Young. Worldwide Personal Tax Guide, Page 604. September 2012. Raw data.

[6] Iraq. Council of Representatives. Iraqi Constitution.

[7] “Iraq: Government.” GlobalEDGE: Your Source for Global Business Knowledge. 2014. Accessed March 26, 2014. http://globaledge.msu.edu/countries/iraq/government.

[8] “Iraq.” UNICEF. December 2013. Accessed March 27, 2014. http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/iraq_statistics.html.

[9] “Iraq.” UNICEF. December 2013. Accessed March 27, 2014. http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/iraq_statistics.html.

[10] Mamouri, Ali. “Iraq’s Civil Society Under Siege.” Al-Monitor. October 23, 2013. Accessed March 27, 2014. http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/10/iraq-hostility-civil-society-politics.html.

 

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