The Demographics of Uproar – Iraq
Eventful as they have been, the last two pandemic-marked years have not brought much change for demographic trends in the MENA region. Although Covid-induced worldwide economic crisis certainly highlighted the burning issues of weakening markets and politicians’ idling on the matter, the stakeholders of labour and urbanisation policies have long been facing an even more dangerous enemy: the demographics.
A lot of oil but no jobs for Iraqi youth
Iraq is home to oil reserves amounting to almost 145 billion barrels, which places Baghdad at the 5th place in world’s ranking. Energy sector constitutes the most important – and fairly lucrative – source of national wealth. However, in this case “national” does not mean “belonging to the nationals”, as the oil revenue is oftentimes unevenly distributed and poorly managed.
Unfair and ill-administered redistribution of wealth in the country is the main cause of ever-worsening employment crisis in the country. It affects the most the youngest part of the population, especially its male half (due to certain cultural convictions regarding male and female roles in society).
Although youth unemployment may be regarded as a world-wide problem with no regard to latitude, in Iraq the issue is shaped in a far more complex way. Iraqi population is incredibly young, with over 50 per cent being below 25 years of age, which makes the issue far more problematic and puts country’s economy at risk.
Lack of job prospects was the main driving force of fierce, almost country-wide protests of 2019 (as it is worth mentioning the situation in the Kurdistan Region varies to some degree from the Arab part of Iraq due to nearly fully self-autonomous government and slightly different employment numbers). Abruptly stopped by the coronavirus outbreak, the social dissatisfaction was not alleviated, but had to remain dormant for a while.
Demonstrations, photographed, videoed and commonly published on social media as well as in the traditional media outlets have been – to this day – met with a reaction that could be described as moderately indifferent. Although the first wave of protests in 2019 swept down an entire government of Adel Abdul Mahdi, the prime minister and his promises that came after, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, have not improved the state of Iraq. With Covid cases soaring in mid-2021 and oil prices still not at a sustainable level, the recent parliamentary elections sparked, once again, a debate over the state of labour market.
Complexity behind the reasons
However, the problem is rooted not only in purely political mismanagement. The demographic structure has been evolving into the shape it has now for many years, and the labour market catastrophe is not a sudden setback as well – corrupted government jobs or high-risk paramilitary ones have been there for some time now. Supposedly it would be difficult to manage employment policies and effective job-seeking mechanisms even in a lawful society that is so predominantly young.
Alongside economic reasons, difficult security situation also appears in the view. Although recently ISIS has remained relatively silent and lost its territorial gains from 2014 and onwards, the rivalry of sectarian-led militias, Iranian meddling in the region and quite common human rights violations do not make it easy for young people to accommodate their basic need for safety, let alone settling to start a family.
The differences in chances, nepotism and poverty used to be fuelled by sectarian conflicts, as Iraq population – without Kurds – is divided almost in half into Sunni and Shiia Muslims, with the latter holding majority of power in the country, both political and military. As of now, the youth of Iraq does not see a difference – whether you are a Shia or a Sunni, with no money to pay the bribe or no family or patronage connections no good job will be available.
The socio-economic contributions to the worsening demographic situation in the region are of primary importance – however, world-wide environmental crisis is also partially responsible for plummeting quality of life in the region.
Firstly, as early as in the second half of the 20th century, huge parts of marshland were drained, bringing disastrous effect on local agriculture – especially date palms. Then there came the Iran-Iraqi and 2003 war, leaving behind patched of land poked with landmines, being a deathly threat to people, animals and soil up till now.
Climate crisis has also not spared the region. Temperatures are on the rise and rainfalls happen less and less frequently, destroying what is left of the fields, making it almost impossible to cultivate land in many rural parts of Iraq. Even sandstorms come more often, speeding up the process of turning what used to be the Fertile Crescent into a desert.
Water also has become a problem. Hot summers and dry seasons make it harder and harder for country’s main rivers to remain well hydrated – land dries up, and alongside it wells providing water to people. Additionally, since Iraq alleviates its shortages by relying on supplies from neighbouring countries, and their poor water-policy management, internal turmoil and cross-border political issues make water availability an unstable matter.
Changing demographics have resulted not only in outbreaks of youth uproar. Alongside protests, there have appeared a trend of migration from rural areas – affected both by lack of non-agricultural jobs and climate threats – to urbanised regions, predominantly big cities. Nonetheless, these places offer low-paying jobs for low-skilled workers, leaving behind those with a degree, trying to pursue a career in their field of specialisation. No prospects at home are accompanied by astoundingly weak passports (ranker 115 out of 116 in the Henley Passport Index) preventing them from immigrating. Unstable governments have yet to succeed in effective policy-making, but a newly-elected parliament gives at least some hope for a new, fresh start. Although the turnout was not great – especially in the age range of interest in this article – it still may suggest that a change is, if not expected, then at least pending somewhere in the future. The issues of the youth are abundant, but solutions are yet to be found in the future – the future that, all in all, belongs to the youth.