Sunday, February 15, 2009

U.S. Reports On Iraq’s Economy & Services

In January 2009 both the Defense Department and the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) released their quarterly reports to Congress on Iraq. Both included overviews of Iraq’s economy and services. While the Pentagon tends to stress the positives, the SIGIR has some of the most up to date statistics, and gives a much more in depth look at the major sectors of Iraq’s economy. Both found aggregate improvements in the country, but still massive problems that need to be addressed.


The Iraqi Ministry of Planning recently reported that Iraq’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) grew 10.9% in 2008. That was above the 9% growth predicted by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). While the improved security conditions has allowed more space for Iraqi businesses, the one major reason why Iraq’s economy grew so much last year was because of the massive increase in the price of oil. With the dramatic drop in the petroleum market, Iraq’s economy can be expected to shrink in 2009. There are also large structural problems. Iraq’s oil sector has been largely stagnant since the U.S. invasion. The violence has kept foreign investors away and hindered local businesses, which has left the state the driving force in the economy. The country needs massive investment to upgrade its infrastructure and provide jobs. Officially the unemployment rate is 15%, but the Minister of Planning Ali Baban and other sources believe it is much higher. The SIGIR thinks that unemployment and underemployment could be as high as 60%. Corruption also affects every part of the government and economy, and takes a large toll.

Oil & Gas

Oil is the main driver of Iraq’s economy. All the oil companies are state-run, and are expected to account for 85% of the country’s revenue in 2009. The drop in oil prices therefore will cause a major crisis for Iraq at least in the short term. Besides that the country has no flexibility in its oil exports to make up for fluctuations in international prices. Oil production in 2008 averaged 2.42 million barrels a day, an almost 15% increase from 2.11 million barrels a day in 2007. However that was below the 2.5 million mark from before the U.S. invasion. Overall, production has been stagnant since 2003, with minor changes up and down. The same thing applies to exports. In the last three months of 2008 Iraq exported 1.79 million barrels a day, a 3% increase from the previous quarter, but a 6% decrease from the same period in 2007.

The U.S. has spent $1.86 billion on the oil and gas industry, but it still needs several billion dollars more in investment. An audit by the SIGIR of work done by Kellog Brown & Root to work on Iraq’s southern oil fields and port found that Iraqis may not be taking care of many of these projects finished by the United States. At the end of 2008 the Oil Ministry also began two rounds of bidding for international companies to invest in nineteen oil and gas fields across the country. By the middle of this year the Ministry hopes to have these contracts completed. They are hoping that these corporations will boost exports to two million barrels a day in 2009, and overall production to 6 million by 2015. Iraq has also signed up a Japanese company to work on improving the port in Basra where the vast majority of the country’s exports flow through. Baghdad is moving ahead with these deals despite the fact that the Hydrocarbon law that will define the role of companies and the government in the oil and gas fields has been deadlocked in parliament for almost two years now.

Despite Iraq’s oil wealth it cannot meet its public’s demand for refined petroleum products. At the end of 2008 it did not meet its benchmarks for production of a range of goods like gas and diesel. By that time it was short 51% of gas needs, 36% of diesel, 24% of liquefied petroleum, and 15% of kerosene demand. The production of these products has gone up, but it is being outstripped by the Iraqis’ desires for more.

Corruption and transparency is also a problem with the industry. In December 2008 the IMF said that Iraq was not doing enough to fight corruption in the oil sector. The IMF and United Nations also both criticized Baghdad for not setting up rules for better accountability with its revenues. The huge amount of money generated by petroleum is obviously a huge attraction to officials hoping to steal, but Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has never shown any enthusiasm for stopping it. Instead he sees it as a public relations problem to be solved by simply not talking about it.


The Pentagon’s report said that farming has the biggest opportunity for growth this year. Agriculture accounts for 6% of GDP, and employs around 25% of the workforce, the second largest private employer in Iraq. Most of it is subsistence however, rather than for profit. The Defense Department listed all the structural impediments to this sector actually improving any time soon. Farming lacks government support, tariffs to keep out foreign competition, modern technology and techniques, electricity and fuel shortages that hinder the use of pumps for irrigation, a system that is broken down throughout the country, credit and investment, markets, and security. For those reasons Iraq imports 50% of its food needs.

In 2008 Iraq was also hit by a drought. It was mostly concentrated in the north affecting the provinces of Irbil, Dohuk, Tamim, Diyala, and Ninewa the worst. As a result wheat and barley production are down 51%, two of Iraq’s three major crops. The Water Resource Ministry reported in January 2009 that rain and snow was again down one third from normal, which could mean another water shortage this year. Kurdistan is working with the U.N. to help relieve the issue, while the Ministry of Agriculture began several assistance programs as well. The U.S. doesn’t think the government’s moves have been very effective however.

State Owned Businesses

As reported before, under Saddam the economy was state-run. After the U.S. invasion, the Coalition Provisional Authority unsuccessfully tried to privatize it, which led to the closing of hundreds of government owned businesses that employed up to 15% of the workforce. In 2006 the Defense Department began a program to revitalize these public industries to create more jobs. Over $100 million has been put into this project. That funding is now coming to an end, and Baghdad will now be responsible for their revitalization. At the end of 2008 the SIGIR did an audit of this effort, but found no reliable data to determine whether it was effective or not. It also found that cash was being given out without invoices, which would encourage corruption.


One area where Iraq has made a lot of progress has been with its foreign debt. Iraq owes money to two groups, the Paris Club and non-Paris Club countries. Most of this was from the Saddam era. Since 2004 Baghdad has been able to get $74 billion of its debt forgiven. That leaves $50-$75 billion still owed. The Paris Club, which is made up of western industrialized countries holds $7.6 billion in Iraq debt, down from $50 billion. Iraq reached an agreement with them on this remaining amount at the end of 2008. Most of Iraq’s remaining obligations belong to Saudi Arabia, China, and Kuwait. Negotiations with them are on going.


Banking is another industry the government is hoping will grow in 2009. The Iraqi Central Bank has been able to keep inflation in check. In 2006 it was at 32%, but by September 2008 it was cut to 12.9%. Control over inflation has allowed the Iraqi dinar to appreciate in value. From November 2006 to October 2008 Iraq’s currency increased 20% in value, and stood at 1,172 dinars for one American dollar in December 2008. The low inflation and appreciation has given Iraqis more buying power. The Central Bank is now cutting interest rates to encourage loans.

State owned banks account for 90% of all banking assets in the country. There are seven such enterprises that control 66% of the branches. The two main ones are the Rafidain and Rasheed Banks that have 150 branches each. The Agricultural Cooperative Bank, the Real Estate Bank, the Industrial Bank, the Iraq Bank, and the Trade Bank of Iraq follow those. In total the government has 397 bank branches. The largest private banks are the Al-Qarka Bank for Investment and Funding with 68 branches, the Investment Bank of Iraq with 22, and the Basra International Bank for Investment with nineteen. There are 194 private bank branches overall. Private banks have expanded with the improvement in security with more moving out to the provinces.

Like everything else, Iraq’s banks still have many problems. A December 2008 audit of the Rasheed and Rafidain banks found no business plan, no rules or regulations for workers, no reporting rules, no technology, little risk management, and hardly any services offered. For example, there are no personal accounts, safety deposit boxes, or dealings with foreign banks. More importantly, in late December 2008 two state-run banks ran out of cash, leaving Diyala province with no money to pay for government salaries, pensions, or reconstruction projects. The head of the Rafidain bank told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in January 2009 that if banking were a sign of economic progress, Iraq would be far behind. The entire system needs to be reformed as a result.

This year the government is attempting to solve some of these problems by encouraging foreign banks to do business in Iraq. At the end of January 2009 the Finance Ministry held a conference asking international banks to invest and open branches in Iraq. The Finance Ministry promised them that he could clear any bureaucratic obstacles that they might face. The two-day event was attended by officials from American, English, Turkish, Iranian, Lebanese, Jordanian, and Bahrain owned banks. The Iraq Central Bank had already issued licenses to three foreign banks. JP Morgan Chase and Citibank said they were interested as well.

Stock Exchange

The Iraqi Stock Exchange was opened for business in August 2007. Since then it has sputtered forward. The number of shares traded in 2008 was down from 2007, although there are now more foreign stocks available. In 2007 there were 94 companies listed on the exchange. In 2008 that only increased by two. The number of sessions went up from 119 in 2007 to 139 in 2008, as well as the shares traded, however their value went down from $357 million to $251 million.


American surveys of Iraqis have found mass disappointment with the delivery of services. The Pentagon declared that in 2009 meeting basic needs would be the top issue surpassing security for the first time since the invasion. It should be no surprise than that this was a major issue in the January 2009 provincial elections. While the U.S. has found some improvement in the government’s abilities, supply of essential services still does not meet demand.

Iraqis are generally unhappy with their supply of food, water, electricity, sewage, and health. A survey from the end of 2008 found that only 16% were satisfied with the amount of electricity they received, down from 32% in 2007. 26% said they were happy with their health services, down from 36% in 2007. 31% were satisfied with their drinking water, the same amount as 2007.


Electricity production has increased, but it is only meeting 66% of demand. By the end of last year Iraq was producing 4,997 megawatts per day, a record high. That was a 2% increase from the previous quarter. The capacity of Iraq’s generators has increased by around 1,500 megawatts on average. Like the oil industry, the power system needs massive investment to repair and upgrade facilities. Security and fuel shortages also hinder production. Climate changes, like the drought have also cut hydroelectric output.

The U.S. has spent $4.78 billion on Iraq’s electrical system and added 2,683 megawatts. Iraqis have matched this investment. In 2007 they spent $1.4 billion, in 2008 $2.3 billion, and in 2009 the proposed budget sets aside $1.1 billion. The Ministry of Electricity signed a $3 billion deal recently with General Electric to provide generators. The Ministry wants to double production eventually, and match demand. In the meantime, many Iraqis have been forced to rely upon private generators that produce between 2,000-3,000 megawatts. Thankfully, the number of attacks on the system are also down with no major ones since April 2008. Previous ones however have kept four of eleven damaged power lines out of use.


Baghdad is making small steps to provide more health services, but lacks the personnel to be effective. Iraq has 27.5 million people, but only 15,500 doctors. A study said they need about 100,000. Many physicians have left the country due to the violence. The Health Ministry has a large budget, $192 million in 2008, but like the rest of the administration, has not been able to spend most of it. By the end of September 2008 they had only expended $28.5 million, 14.8%. The Ministry did launch a public relations campaign to educate Iraqis about health issues last year, has plans to build six new hospitals and 1,000 health clinics by the end of the decade, and conducted a successful five day polio campaign that vaccinated 97% of Iraq’s five million children. Until Iraq is able to meet its staffing deficit however, it will be hard to do more.


Iraq’s water system is in disrepair. The facilities are operating below capacity because of a lack of maintenance, and problems with operating them. For example, when the U.S. turned over the Nassiriya Water Treatment Plant in September 2007, which cost $278 million to build, it had a capacity to treat 10,000 cubic meters of water per hour. When the SIGIR later looked at it they found that Baghdad wasn’t providing enough power, leaks were not fixed, and the personnel were not trained for their jobs. By the beginning of 2008 when American inspectors went back they found that it was operating at less then a quarter of its capabilities. The U.S. had to sign two contracts worth $1.1 million to save the project, since it felt that Baghdad would not.

As reported before, Iraq suffered a cholera outbreak in 2008 that affected more than half of its eighteen provinces. Besides the incompetence of some provincial officials that used expired chlorine to clean water, the broken down sewage and water system were largely to blame. International organizations have said that Iraq will face annual cholera incidents as a result.

Food Rations

Iraq has the largest food ration system in the world. It took up 8% of the 2008 budget. It is looked at as a basic indicator of how well the government can provide services. For 2009 there are plans to cut wealthy families from the program because of the budget crisis caused by the drop in oil prices. Less money is also going to be appropriated for it overall.

Transportation and Communication

Iraq’s Ministries of Transportation and Communication have not been able to spend most of their 2008 budgets. Transportation only spent $55 million by the end of September 2008 of its $322 million, 17%, while Communications expended $28 million of its $315 million budget, 8.8%. Iraq’s roads are in need of repair, but the lack of spending by the government means that will not be taken care of. The Ministry of Transportation does have a plan to revitalize the country’s railway system. It is opening a plant at Abu Ghraib to manufacture railroad ties at a cheaper price than imports.


Overall, Iraq’s economy is too dependent upon oil, and its management by the government is inefficient and corrupt. Petroleum is the only thing that makes Iraq’s economy grow, since its other industries are small and underdeveloped. The legacy of Saddam’s system still resonates, as Iraq’s bureaucracy does not function without orders from the top officials. There is little to no individual initiative. Many ministers have to sign for everything even down to hiring people. The government is also paper based, which makes things move at a snail’s pace. Many of the country’s best and brightest have left the country and are not coming back. That has led to a massive talent deficit. The lack of transparency and accounting has allowed large-scale corruption to occur largely unencumbered by any real government effort to stop it. The lack of tariffs has meant that many private businesses have suffered from cheap foreign imports. Fuel and electricity shortages, and the lack of security have increased costs. Iraqis have also shown a general lack of willingness to maintain their infrastructure, which leads to breakdowns and plants operating at less then capacity. The one positive is that security has improved, which could allow foreign companies in oil, gas, electricity, and banking to finally invest in Iraq. The lack of competent bureaucrats could negatively affect that as well as they could give foreigners too much control over Iraq’s resources, deter companies from coming because of bad contracts, or provide new avenues for graft and bribes. Still foreign know how, technology, and money is desperately needed. It will be a long and hard struggle to overcome Iraq’s many problems, and create a diversified economy that can meet the needs of its public. There is no guarantee that it will ever happen.


Abouzeid, Rania, “Mismanaging Iraq: No Cash to Carry,” Time, 12/29/08

Associated Press, “Iraqi official appeals to foreign banks to invest,” 1/28/09

Aswat al-Iraq, “GDP higher by 10.9 % in 2008,” 2/11/09
- “Iraqi Unemployment Rate Dropped by 15% in 2008,” 1/27/09

Chon, Gina, “Western Bank Giants Prepare to Revamp Iraq’s Financial System,” Baghdad Life Blog, Wall Street Journal, 1/28/09

Department of Defense, “Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq,” December 2008

O’Hanlon, Michael and Campbell, Jason, “Iraq Index,” Brookings Institution, 11/20/08

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, “Official: Iraqi Banking System Needs Overhaul,” 1/13/09

Al Sabah, “Iraq faces massive water shortage, Water Resources said,” 1/21/09

Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, “Quarterly Report to the United States Congress,” 10/30/09
- “Quarterly Report and Semiannual Report to the United States Congress,” 1/30/09

El-Tablawy, Tarek, “Official: 80 percent of Iraq pipelines damaged,” Associated Press, 2/11/09

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