“Why should we remain silent, the water has become scarce and all the wealth you have stolen belongs in the pocket of Basra.”
These are the opening lyrics of a new song by a singer from Basra. They describe what has become a common sentiment in the oil-rich governorate, which provides a staggering 80 percent of Iraq’s revenues and contains 60 percent of the country’s proven oil reserves. Furthermore, Basra is where Iraq’s only port is located. Among its inhabitants, there is an increasing awareness of the contrast between Basra’s immense wealth and their own daily reality of poverty, neglect, crumbling infrastructure, and shortage of electricity and drinking water. Basra, once called the Jewel of the Gulf, is today far removed from the Gulf, and from its past as a vital commercial and political hub for the region.
The city of Basra, which once was the capital of an autonomous region under the Ottoman Empire, later became a hostage of Baghdad politics after oil was discovered there. It grew dependent on financial allocations from the central government, although most of the government’s budget relied on revenues from Basra’s oilfields. Moreover, from the perspective of many of its inhabitants, the Shi‘a political class is dominated by Islamists from Baghdad, Najaf, and Karbala, while Basra itself is not adequately represented by prominent politicians. The gap has been constantly widening between Basra’s imagined past and grim present, but also between its indispensable role in securing Iraq’s economic survival and its marginal role in Iraqi politics and decisionmaking.
This summer, rising temperatures in Basra, which reached 52° Celsius, were accompanied by long power outages and a dearth of drinking water. This sparked anger and protests. The public’s disillusionment with the system only increased following the last election, which confirmed that real change does not necessarily come through the ballot box. As protests escalated, the protesters’ feelings of victimhood pushed many of them to construct a new narrative about the city and its relationship with the rest of Iraq. Basra’s unemployed youth complained about the lack of basic services and economic opportunities, motivating some of its intellectuals, politicians, and traders to demand more autonomy from Baghdad.
“Today, Basra incubates new sentiments that are opposed to Baghdad’s authority,” notes Sarmad al-Ta‘ee, a prominent Basra journalist; “With every new barrel of oil exported from the governorate, the feeling that Basra should become the master of its own house grows more appealing.”
These sentiments are still only emerging now and will take a long time to translate into more elaborate political demands. Yet, they were strong enough to compel members of Basra’s provincial administration to sign a petition demanding the transformation of the governorate into an autonomous region. Additionally, Basra’s parliamentarians, who belong to parties led from Baghdad or Najaf, formed a parliamentary committee to unite their positions on the current crisis and to define Basra’s relationship with the federal government.
In an extraordinary session of parliament to discuss the Basra crisis, provincial identity prevailed over political affiliation in a tense exchange between Prime Minister Haidar al-‘Abadi and Basra Governor As‘ad al-‘Aidani, a member of the Abadi-led coalition. Reacting to ‘Abadi’s criticism of local officials in Basra, ‘Aidani presented the governorate’s case against Baghdad. He complained that the government had not implemented a decision to grant oil-producing governorates a share of oil revenues, nor had it paid Basra its share of border duties. Even a foreign loan to help repair the water supply system in Basra, he said, had not been implemented because of bureaucratic delays in Baghdad.
Conversely, Baghdad had its own lists of complaints about Basra officials. Two of the governorates’ former governors were forced to resign after accusations of corruption or inefficiency, and one was assassinated a few years after leaving office. But these episodes are commonly seen as a reflection of rivalries between Baghdad-centered parties rather than as the outcome of local dynamics.
A fatal combination of structural problems and unmet expectations explain why many in Basra took to the streets recently, while some dared to attack government buildings and offices of political parties and militias. Plummeting oil prices after 2013 and spending for the campaign against the Islamic State reduced state resources, making it more difficult to invest in infrastructure and services. It became harder to get a job in the bloated public sector, which employs more than 5 million people, making the Iraqi government one of the largest in the world. Therefore, most young individuals who do not have access to the clientelistic networks controlled by political parties are left with few choices. They can join a militia, work in the black market or engage in other illicit activities, or remain unemployed. In a country undergoing rapid demographic growth, almost 60 percent of the population is under 24, leading to an inexhaustible demand for jobs.
Those seeking to frame the protests in a broader historical perspective are trying to rediscover the unique past of the governorate, differentiating it not only from the rest of Iraq but from the rest of Shi‘a Iraq as well. In the past, Basra was less homogenous than other Shi‘a cities. It had large Christian and Jewish minorities, and still has a significant and once influential Sunni minority, as well as a powerful Shi‘a sect, the Sheikhiyya, whose version of Shiism distinguishes it from the dominant Shiism of Najaf. Basra’s historical ties were shaped by its location as a maritime city and its connections with Gulf sheikhdoms and across the sea, rather than with Baghdad, Tehran, or Istanbul. To some people, these are good reasons to imagine a Basra more autonomous from Baghdad and less dominated by Najaf and Shi‘a Islamists.
Yet, those seeking to reinvent Basra’s identity—mainly a concern of intellectuals and the educated middle class—face difficult realities and might never coalesce into a political movement. The governorate has been profoundly changed in the past decades. The dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, the Iraq-Iran war, and the subsequent U.S.-led wars and sanctions accelerated Basra’s deterioration and the migration of its middle class and prominent families. Political turmoil after the U.S. invasion of 2003 led to the departure of minorities and the spread of militias and violent groups, some holding rigid Islamist views. In the last decade, the deepening sectarian divide strengthened Basra’s ties with the rest of Iraq’s Shi‘a, deemphasizing regional-geographic identities. Moreover, the city of Basra attracted migrants from other southern areas, especially as agriculture declined and farmers sought jobs in more economically active cities.
Perhaps more importantly, the idea of giving Basra more autonomy is unlikely to be embraced by influential political groups, especially if this means increasing the governorate’s powers to manage its own oil resources. Indeed, while the recent protests in Basra heightened political contention between ‘Abadi and Iranian-backed groups and led Muqtada al-Sadr to abandon his support for an ‘Abadi second term as prime minister, no party advocated giving Basra more autonomy.
For all these reasons, Basra’s feelings of victimhood have not yet created a sense of regional identity that is stronger than national or sectarian identities. Yet, they do pose a challenge to the Shi‘a Islamist political class, which has built its power by adopting a political agenda that asserts sectarian identity over regional identities. Basra’s protests have been another step away from such sectarian politics and toward a new political language and mobilization in which socioeconomic demands and regional identities become more salient.
Neglecting and suppressing Basra’s protest movement could accelerate such a transformation. A governorate deeply damaged by social and political instability, poor governance, corruption, and urban degradation, yet also in possession of immense wealth and the rich historical memory of a better past, could well turn into a place of unremitting unrest in the future.