Hydrocarbon law approval is key for the future of Iraq
August 28, 2014
Nouri al-Maliki and the Islamic Dawa Party took office in Iraq eight years ago. Oil revenues topped $41 billion in 2007 and rose to nearly $86 billion in 2013. Oil production ranged between 2 million barrels per day at the beginning of that period to nearly 3 million barrels at its end.
Maliki’s government made an important decision to call on international oil companies to invest in Iraq to increase [oil] field productivity. Despite the need for modern technology and management, these two factors were not the main reasons behind the decision. Instead, it was the government’s urgent need for additional funds, given the global financial crisis and the declining oil prices at the end of the last decade.
Maliki’s rule will be known as the “post-Mosul ravage” in Iraq’s history. He ended his term by failing to repel the “neo-Nazi” invasion of Mosul and the Ninevah province, where mass murders are being committed against Christians and Yazidis. Militias have displaced the region’s peaceful population and confiscated their homes after painting on them a letter identifying their religion, just as the Nazis did to European Jews during World War II.
Maliki’s rule has ended and the Iraqis still remember what they learned in history books about the Mongol invasion of Baghdad — the burning of libraries and bloodshed, the capturing and selling of women in the slave markets, just as the Islamic State (IS) did in Mosul. History will not forget that the Iraqi army did not defend Mosul’s population, nor will it forget the rampant corruption, as the robbery and loss of billions of dollars has become normal.
Maliki has threatened the Iraqi people with opening “the gates of hell” if he is removed from power. It is as if this post is reserved for him and his heirs eternally. Since oil is the mainstay of the Iraqi economy, the first thing that comes to mind is the absence of an oil and gas law in Iraq since 2003, which is normal in light of political differences and the absence of a new social contract. Is Iraq a federal state as stipulated in the constitution or a centralized state? Is there any political will for real coexistence — with middle-ground solutions and understandings that take into account the views of other parties in the state — or is there a tendency for some, especially the Kurds, towards independence from Iraq?
The Iraqi people have not given their final answers to these questions, despite the 2005 constitutional referendum. The Iraqi oil industry has suffered from the absence of a social contract between political leaders. Although oil revenues reached $10 billion a year, it is not enough to build a stable modern state in the absence of an understanding among officials on whether the state is centralized or federal. With no clear contract, oil officials will not be able to rationally manage their sector without this understanding between politicians and their parties.
In fact, the disputes that have prevailed over the country’s politics for the past years — adding Iraq to the group of failed states — resulted from delays caused by a fruitless political polemic. The debate has prevented the parliament, since 2007, from passing the oil and gas law, which attempted to resolve the distribution of privileges and responsibilities of the sector between the federal Ministry of Oil in Baghdad and the authorities in the provinces and regions. The dispute over oil also resulted in the possible division of the country, the exploitation of its weaknesses and its invasion by terrorists.
The draft law is clear. It confirmed that the ownership of oil and gas was for the whole Iraqi people in all regions and provinces. It also suggested forming a federal council for oil and gas that included officials from the federal government and the provinces and regions, and made the necessary state-level, oil-related decisions through coordination and negotiations between the federal oil ministry and the provinces.
In many of its provisions, the draft reiterates tasking federal authorities with the planning and implementation of oil production in the country, on condition of negotiating and coordinating with the different sides. Such responsibility imposes the presence of a responsible and open government that negotiates with the parties and transfers to them the allocated funds on time, without monopolizing them in Baghdad.
This also means that the parties should specify exactly what they want from Iraq. Do they want to exploit Iraq’s natural wealth, then leave? If this threat resurfaces every time the dispute escalates between Baghdad and Erbil, it will be hard to develop the Iraqi oil industry and stop threats from reaching other regions. Conflicts and perhaps international tribunals would be the only alternatives in such a case.
Iraq must learn from two experiences. The first is the experience of the Council for Reconstruction in the 1950s. At that time, oil revenue was allocated to well-studied reconstruction and infrastructure projects instead of salaries of employees and pensions. Furthermore, [oil revenue] failed to provide electricity and water for citizens, as is currently the case. Second, Iraq is a country that is almost closed geographically and needs a foreign policy that shields it from wars and conflicts with neighboring regions. The country cannot bear the burden of halting its oil exports for long.
It is understandable that disputes regarding the oil law happen, given the conflicts of interest. However, it is inexcusable to keep inviting global oil companies and increasing production in the absence of this law. This means that Iraq will face many problems in the foreseeable future, whether internally, like the division of the country, or legally due to disputes with the oil companies. The absence of the oil law is as serious as the dissolution of the Iraqi army. They are both pillars of the country, albeit each with a different role.
If the Iraqi governments keep bickering over the same issues and following the policies that have been around since 2003, the only solution would be to change the regime rather than these policies. The doors of hell might then break loose, and this is what Maliki has always feared.