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Iraq: Where Everything Else Divides, the Economy Can Unite

Posted on the 16 December 2014 by Center For International Private Enterprise @CIPEglobal

afrobarometer-iraqThis blog is the first in a three-part series addressing recent findings of the Arab Barometer, whose objectives include the production of scientifically reliable data on the political attitudes of ordinary citizens.

For Iraq, bombing ISIS out of existence is impossible and counterintuitive. Job creation that drives balanced economic growth, on the other hand, is not only feasible but badly needed. The policy narratives may be slowly shifting away from a security focus towards a holistic reform that prioritizes job creation. Academics, development experts, and even the U.S. President are beginning to realize that providing economic outlets for Iraqis, particularly potential militants, to put food on the table and send their children to school might be the long-term silver bullet.

This should not be a difficult message to sell: economic opportunity – not martyrdom, not anti-Western ideology, not even the Syrian Civil War – is far and away the most important issue for all Arabs whether they are for, against, or undecided about ISIS. Below is an analysis of three recent opinion polls showing that, whereas much remains to divide the Iraqi people, job creation continues to unite them and should be the thrust of coalition-building and reconstruction efforts emanating from Baghdad and Washington.

The Western media’s treatment of Iraq typically frames the current chaos there in terms of the sectarian differences between the Arab Sunnis, Arab Shia, and Sunni Kurds. The latest survey data from the Arab Barometer (AB), which conducted waves of public opinion polls in February/March of 2011 and again in June 2013, confirms that sectarian tensions are contributing to the complicated political and security crises. But if the Arab Barometer findings highlight issues that divide Iraqis, they also illuminate the one issue that also unites them: the economy.

And it is no small issue. Rather, and in spite of all the attention that politics and conflict gets, the number one concern for Iraqis of every sect is and has always been jobs. Opinion data from the internationally renowned Zogby polls also reveals that Iraqis, like all Arabs, are concerned more with their economic situation than they are with democracy, freedom of speech, or even security. It’s still the economy, stupid!

According to the 2011 Arab Barometer, government approval among Sunnis as well as Shiite Iraqis was 3.95 out of 10. AB Steering Committee Member Amaney Jamal argues that these perceptions are directly related to the devastating economic situation faced by all Iraqis, 80 percent of whom answered that their household income barely or did not adequately cover their expenses. In fact, the Zogby poll conducted six months after the first Arab Barometer survey demonstrates that both Shiites and Sunnis believed they were worse off in 2011 than in 2003; the most noteworthy areas of deterioration were economic development, employment, and security.

Public perception of the government could have become more positive in the two years following the first wave of polls– at least among Shia – if the government had managed to chip away at this 80 percent figure. [1] Instead, 2013 data reveals a much less engaged electorate, only 35 percent of whom said they approved of the government. This comes as no shock given the failure to improve the economy: power outages remain rampant, unemployment has declined only marginally if at all, and the largest international oil companies have left because of the regime’s hostile business policies.

Furthermore, Iraqis’ belief that democracy is the best form of government dropped by 9 points between 2011 and 2013. This, again, is due to the failure of democracy to yield economic improvement. Thirty-five percent of Iraqis pointed to economic factors like the elimination of corruption or narrowing the gap between rich and poor as the most important component of democracy. When asked what the second most important aspect of democracy was, 43 percent listed an economic characteristic like transparency or government provision of basic needs like food, housing, and clothing. Other factors that received mention were freedom to criticize the government and equal rights between citizens, though none of these was as highly rated as economic considerations. The declining belief in democracy, therefore, should be understood as a judgment of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s version of “democracy” and the dismal economic picture rather than the concept of self-rule in general.

Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, and Christians may differ on who they want to lead them, how much Islam should be a part of politics, and whether or not they trust the security services, but citizens of every city and sect agree that the government has failed because economic improvement is not being realized. If their number one concern unites them, the issues that divide should certainly not be the focus of domestic, regional, or international efforts. Rather, regional politics and international efforts should be working to improve the economy first and foremost.

Sarah Ali is a Program Assistant for the Middle East & North Africa at CIPE.

[1] When Nouri al – Maliki took office, he initiated regular payments to Iraqi Shi`a whose sons, brothers, fathers, etc. had been found in mass graves as a result of Saddam’s aggression against the sect. These payments have affected a large contingent of the 20+ million Iraqi Shi`a, yet still the economic grievances are so great as to cause such high levels of dissatisfaction with the government.


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