Friday, March 4, 2022

Review Relations Of The People to The Land In Southern Iraq

Baali, Fuad, Relations Of The People to The Land In Southern Iraq, Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1966


Relations Of The People To The Land In Southern Iraq is a 1966 survey of land ownership in Iraq and the problems that ensued. Before the 1958 coup the country was dominated by large landowners which led to a ruling oligarchy and mass poverty. Fuad Baali attempts to explain how this situation came about by going through Iraqi history and laws.


Baali looks at the Ottoman period, the British Mandate and the Iraqi monarchy and how Iraq’s land ownership developed over that period of time. Under the Ottomans most of the land belonged to the state but because of ineffective laws, administration and enforcement private owners began using the land for their own profit. The British maintained the basic Ottoman system but most of the records were lost or destroyed making the issue of who owned what even more difficult to record and more open to manipulation. After independence in 1932 Baghdad passed several laws that allowed sheikhs to register land as their own. They were joined by urban elites who bought up land as well. This led to a concentration of wealth and power. From 1958-59 1.9% of all holdings controlled 68% of the cultivated land. This oligarchy would dominate the economy and become the backbone of the monarchy. England and then the monarchy it imposed on Iraq were both looking for constituencies to help with their rule and chose the landed aristocracy as their allies in this endeavor. Relations Of The People To The Land In Southern Iraq does a good job going through this history.


More important however was Baali’s analysis of what that meant for Iraqis. First, the landlords turned the tribesmen into serfs by putting them into debt. There was also a law which said no peasants could leave the land until they paid what they owed. Second, the landed elite opposed education because they wanted to keep the rural population on the land. From 1956-57 for instance there were no primary schools in Diwaniya province and only 10 in Basra. Third, the gentry did not want to modernize agriculture. With so much cheap labor there was no reason for them to use machines for instance. As a result, in 1958 only 582 farms used any machinery. Third, the poverty that ensued in agricultural areas led to high mortality, poor health and growing discontent amongst the peasants. Finally, this led to a migration of people to the cities where they believed there were more opportunities. Most of these new urban residents lived in poor conditions such as mud huts. In 1956 there were around 92,000 living in 16,413 huts in Baghdad province. Baali argued that this held down the entire country. The peasants were trapped in poverty, there was little economic development, and the government supported the landlords and largely ignored the people the vast majority of which lived in rural areas at the time. It also meant there was resistance from the powers that be for any economic reforms or social change. This would later backfire and contribute to the overthrow of the monarchy as the younger generation grew increasingly disillusioned with the status qou.


Relations Of The People To The Land In Southern Iraq is a very short read at just under 70 pages. It provides a good political economy of Iraq and how it was underdeveloped due to its land system. Sheikhs and wealthy urbanites were able to buy up land and control the economy and were influential in the government. Farming also hindered the development of industry and capitalism because there weren’t enough people to buy manufactured goods with most being serfs on the land. Industry was also starved of capital with most money caught up in agriculture. The power of the landlords also meant the government didn’t back factories either. Baali’s book therefore provides an important piece in this larger picture.


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