Iraq’s growing oil-financed consumerism

The New York Times reports: One has a designated prayer room. Another frisks patrons at the entrance, requiring them to check their pistols, like coats in a fancy restaurant. They are good places to escape the desert heat, and in a conservative Islamic culture, they are one of the few places where young couples openly flirt or women smoke cigarettes in public.

American-style malls, fixtures in most of Iraq’s wealthy Persian Gulf neighbors, have come late to war-torn Baghdad, but Iraqis are taking to them now like Valley Girls, as a consumer society fueled by the country’s booming oil profits begins to flourish here.

Big malls are being built across the capital. The largest will include a five-star hotel and a hospital, and at one already in operation, a truck arrives each week carrying frozen Big Macs from a McDonald’s in Amman, Jordan.

The construction boom is generally hailed as proof of Iraq’s progress and return to normalcy, more than nine years after the American invasion and six months after the last combat troops departed. But economists and other experts see a dark side. They say the emerging consumer culture masks fundamental flaws in an economy that, like those of other energy-rich countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, stifles productive enterprise by relying almost solely on oil profits and the millions of government salaries those profits finance as part of the country’s vast patronage system.

“Basically, Iraq is trying to build a consumer society, not on state capitalism like in China, but on socialism,” said Marie-Hélène Bricknell, the World Bank’s representative in Iraq.

One of Washington’s principal aims was to develop a free-market economy here. Yet with so much oil wealth at hand, Iraq’s leaders have taken few steps to develop a private sector. More than 90 percent of Iraq’s government revenues derive from oil, and with oil production rapidly expanding, the country’s annual revenues could triple over the next five years, to more than $300 billion. With that kind of wealth rolling in, one of the greatest questions the country faces is what it will do with all that cash.

Given the statist mentality of most top Iraqi officials and widespread corruption, diplomats are generally pessimistic that the expected boom in government revenues will be used either to help develop a private sector or to pay for an ambitious public works program — something the country, where 40 percent of the population still lacks access to safe drinking water, desperately needs. Instead, experts worry it will finance more of what Iraq already has: corruption and a huge government work force.

Most of the major industries remain in the hands of the state, and the greatest ambition of many Iraqis is to secure a government job. According to statistics from the Iraqi Ministry of Planning, almost a third of the labor force works for the government. That is more than five million people, and the number is rising, as political parties that run government ministries use paychecks to expand their constituencies. [Continue reading…]

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