News / Middle East

Iraq Struggles to Create Jobs and Wealth

Iraq has some of the largest oil reserves in the world, but its economy suffers from high unemployment, war damage and the lingering effects of past international sanctions.

Crumbling infrastructure and political bickering also weigh down economic growth.

Oil dominates Iraq’s 82 billion-dollar a year economy, yielding most of the government’s revenues and export income.  It dwarfs all other sectors of the economy, and some economists say it could spur double-digit growth.
That impresses U.S. President Barack Obama.

"In the coming years, it's estimated that Iraq's economy will grow even faster than China's or India's."

Mr. Obama spoke after a recent meeting in Washington with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki.  Iraq has the second-largest proven oil reserves in the world, but most of that potential wealth is still in the ground.  Prime Minister Al-Maliki:

"Iraq ... needs experience and expertise and American and foreign expertise to help Iraq exploit its own wealth in an ideal way."

Foreign oil companies have made some deals in Iraq, but are hesitant to make more investments until the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdish regional government agree on clear laws governing this critical economic sector. They have haggled for years over who has the right to approve agreements with foreign oil companies and how to structure those deals.  

Ben Lando heads the website Iraq Oil Report.  He spoke to VOA via Skype.

"It's a have a fundamental dispute as to what the future of the state looks like, and the oil is where you can see it most starkly playing out."

Iraq's economy is recovering slowly from war and sanctions. At one point, gross domestic product per person fell to just $800, but is now about $3000.  But that is lower than Iraqi incomes in the 1970s.  Unemployment is at least 18 percent, but the oil industry's growing efficiency means it will provide fewer jobs than it did in the past.

Mohsin Khan is with the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“Refineries, people say that you can run refineries that would take 1,000 people in the 1970s, now with 10 [people]. Because of computerization and so on, you don’t need people.”

But Iraqis need jobs. Nearly a quarter of the nation's 32 million citizens live in poverty.

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