Middle East in Focus
Fresh from its military success against the Islamic State and the subsequent reclaiming of its territorial sovereignty in the north, the Iraqi government recently appealed to world governments and international organizations for much-needed financial aid and investment. The USD 30 billion pledged fell far short of expectations, but many observers agree that if the aid is used strategically, it may lay the ground for more sustainable development models in the country.
Reporting from the sidelines of the donor conference, Arab News’s Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg points out that, despite the funds only partially meeting Iraq’s expectations, “[t]here was palpable goodwill toward Iraq during the three-day conference, and Prime Minister Abadi was warmly welcomed and widely applauded. He was stressing Iraq’s reconstruction needs, but was aware of obstacles, which he freely acknowledged. However, most conference delegates also equally stressed the prerequisites for the success of the reconstruction process.... It was encouraging that the Iraqi government made clear that it was aware of all of these misgivings and had started taking meaningful steps to address them. That trend should be encouraged and supported, technically and financially, by donors, especially by international financial and development organizations such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the United Nations.”
In an op-ed published by the Khaleej Times, Director-General of Unesco Audrey Azoulay stresses the importance of investment in the field of education and culture as a way to rebuild trust in war-torn communities: “The great civilizations of this region defined the course of humanity, through a thousand-year dialogue, which gave birth to the wheel, writing, mathematics and law. We will work with our Iraqi counterparts to ensure future generations will learn of their proud heritage, through the school materials that we are developing, including a new school curriculum, which puts humanities at its core along [with] creativity, critical thinking and values of respect. This is the only way to ensure that fanaticism does not prevail once more.... Through culture and education, we can restore trust and create the conditions for a common future. This reconstruction will take time but, brick-by-brick, lesson-by-lesson, together we can revive the true spirit of Mosul.”
Writing for The National, Mina Al-Oraibi underlines the importance of addressing the urgent needs of Iraqi society in the field of education and sanitation, but expresses concern about the immediacy of the challenges lying ahead: “Investment instead of aid brings mixed reactions, but having a long-term stake in Iraq promises better and prolonged engagement and interest in the country. Yet the reality is that certain needs in Iraq can’t be met with investment as there really isn’t a rate of return to be counted on. Schools, sanitation and basic health care are all needed in areas devastated by ISIL.... Time is a critical factor here. As long as areas liberated from ISIL remain in ruins, Iraq’s ability to rise up as an entire country will remain hindered. Worse still, a new generation of Iraqis may grow up feeling disenfranchised and susceptible to manipulation. Swift action is crucial. Even more significant are programmes aimed at rebuilding societies and providing opportunities.”
The sense that time is of the essence is palpable in a recent Gulf News editorial, which tries to draw a contrast between the aid provided by the Sunni Arab countries versus Iran and its regional allies: “Once again, the Gulf nations have stepped up to offer more than their fair share of critical aid and investment to rebuild another war-torn country. While the destruction of Iraq happened under the watch of most international players, Gulf nations have donated the bulk of aid to help the devastated country pick up the pieces.... Perhaps Gulf states see a golden opportunity to diminish Iranian influence in Iraq at a time when Tehran is thinly-stretched, supporting its Hezbollah proxies in Lebanon, Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria and Al Houthi militants in Yemen.... Without a helping hand, Iraq’s disenfranchised Sunnis run the risk of falling back into extremist traps as experienced in 2014, when Daesh began exploiting the frustration to recruit followers. The timing is critical and could not come a moment too soon.”
This sense of urgency to rebuilding — and to get it right this time — is informed by past experiences as well as coming challenges, not least among which being the fast-approaching parliamentary elections. Commenting on the latter, Rudaw’s Ziryan Rojhilatî argues that “Contrary to what is being said, it is unlikely that elections will lead to political stability in Iraq. Since 2003, no elections have led to political stability. The formation of government after elections has always caused knotty problems, political rivalries, and security problems. For 2018, there is no promising indication that we can expect a better situation. There is high possibility that this year will be full of rivalries and complications, just like other post-Saddam years.... Contrary to the hopes of the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, the main Shiite parties are still under the influence of Iran. The Iraqi Sunnis are more inclined to unite, but their main problem is that their voters are absent. Seven Iraqi Sunni cities have been destroyed. More than hundreds of thousands of Sunnis have either emigrated or are internally displaced.”
Finally, as Asharq Alawsat’s Abdulrahman Al-Rashed suggests, much of the pessimism surrounding Iraq’s latest nation-building exercise has to do with the fact that such conferences rarely, if ever, provide the kind of relief countries desperately need: “What’s worse than money shortage is the mismanagement in Iraq itself. Who would want to invest money in a country where militias are deployed and corruption is rampant? There is sectarianism there and the government is weak. Terrorism has not been eliminated even though it was defeated in Mosul and other areas. Obvious foreign interferences, particularly Iran’s, continue to increase. These are all dangerous challenges which we cannot ignore despite American and international pressures to provide support.... Iraqis must not be fooled by international conferences and commitments to reconstruct the country as similar promises have been made but never been fulfilled, like the case is for Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Gaza and Lebanon.”