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Event Recap November 21, 2023

Balancing global engagement and domestic growth: Iraq’s future in and evolving landscape

By Diane Mohamed





 On October 26, 2023, the Atlantic Council’s Iraq Initiative hosted its Second Annual Conference titled, “Balancing global engagement and domestic growth: Iraq’s future in and evolving landscape,” with an array of American and Iraqi experts, including former and current senior-level government officials and scholars. The event featured welcome remarks by Abbas KadhimDirector of the Iraq Initiative at the Atlantic Council, and opening remarks by Olin WethingtonFounder and Chairman of Wethington International LLC

  • This hybrid conference featured three panels: The first panel focused on creating a climate-resilient Iraq. It was moderated by Ahmed Al QabanySenior Climate Change Specialist, Climate Change Group at the World Bank, and included the following as speakers: Majid JafarChief Executive Officer of Crescent PetroleumMishkat Al MouminExecutive Director of Envirolution and Former Iraqi Minister of EnvironmentH.E. Fareed YaseenClimate Envoy of the Republic of Iraq; and Elfatih EltahirProfessor at H.M. King Bhumibol.  
  • The second panel focused on highlighting the youth’s perspectives on shaping a modern Iraq. It was moderated by Hezha Barzani, Assistant Director of empowerME at the Atlantic Council, and included the following speakers: Marsin AlshamaryAssistant Professor at Boston College, and Hamzeh HadadAdjunct Fellow at Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.  
  • The final panel highlighted Iraq’s growing role in regional affairs. It was moderated by Abbas Kadhim, and included the following speakers: H.E. Nazar Al-KhirullahIraqi Ambassador to the United StatesDavid MackNonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Counciland former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs & US Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates; and Douglas SillimanPresident of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, and Former US Ambassador to Iraq.  

Opening remarks  

Iraq is acknowledged for its crucial role in regional stability, combating extremism, and the potential of its energy resources to fuel prosperity within and beyond its borders. Notably, Iraq has successfully conducted five rounds of open parliamentary elections since 2004, each culminating in a peaceful transfer of power- a significant achievement that underscores its democratic progress.  

In light of recent regional challenges, specifically the conflict between Hamas and Israel, Wethington affirmed that the United States remains committed to a partnership with Iraq to contain the conflict and address long term issues. He emphasized that while Iraq still faces foreign interference and security threats, it stands as a voice for moderation and democracy in the region.  Wethington closed with three distinct observations from his September visit to Baghdad, highlighting Iraq as a functioning sovereign state with aims of addressing the practical needs of its people, needs for leveraging its substantial economic resources for future development beyond the oil sector, and emphasizing a focus on economic fundamentals, job creation, governance, service delivery, and social priorities such as education and health.  

Panel Takeaways  

I. Climate-Resilient Iraq 

Iraq’s environmental challenges arise from a mix of global climate change effects and specific issues rooted in the nation’s unique geographical circumstances. Climate change acts as a threat multiplier, and when combined with conflict, the impacts intensify. Jafar mentioned that the war against Daesh alone resulted in the destruction of numerous towns and villages, producing over 50 million tons of debris. Iraq is particularly vulnerable due to its water scarcity and external control over its water sources. However, Yaseen reckoned Iraq is resilient and there is a growing national interest in climate change now.  

Yaseen indicated that Iraq faces two main threats from climate change: direct impacts like increasing temperatures and indirect impacts from global economic shifts. Eltahir noted that Iraq, positioned northwest of the Persian Gulf and east of the Mediterranean Sea, faces the threat of extreme heat waves due to its geography. When looking at the Gulf area, Iraq stands out as one of the area’s most susceptible to heat stress that combine temperature and humidity. Particularly, the southern region around Basra will likely endure significant heat stress. In contrast, the northern and central desert regions of Iraq are most at risk of experiencing dry, extreme heat. According to Eltahir, agriculture is the primary sector impacted by climate change, as outdoor activities will be challenged by heat and water stress. Thus, there will be a need for major adjustments in Iraq’s economic activities, particularly when it comes to investing in green agriculture, given the water scarcity.  

Iraq contends with significant water, land, and air pollution. Every day, the country discharges 5 million cubic meters of sewage into the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Jafar stated that air pollution significantly affects citizens, as Iraq stands as one of the world’s top methane emitters, with substantial flaring evident in the South. In the Middle East, the primary issue isn’t coal but liquid fuels, but gas can still play a vital role in displacing these dirtier fuels. Jafar highlighted that Crescent Petroleum provides gas in the Kurdistan region that powers 85% of the area, benefiting 6 million citizens while avoiding over 5 million tons of CO2 emissions annually – notably, this is equivalent to the carbon emissions saved by all Tesla cars globally. 

Al Moumin underscored the deep connections between climate change, education, security, and stability in Iraq. Approaching climate change solely as an environmental issue neglects the crucial areas of security and public education. She highlighted one environmental organization in Iraq, the Women and the Environment Organization, which successfully engaged and empowered rural women in Southern Iraq. Through educational sessions, these women realized their role in the environmental decision-making process. 

II. Youth Perspectives on Sociopolitical Realities  

Iraqi youth share significant similarities with youth in other Middle Eastern countries, indicating that Iraq is transitioning from being a unique case to facing more common regional challenges. Alshamary highlighted a notable shift in political terminology, in particular with the term “madani” (meaning civil). It represents a form of secularism without the western-associated non-conservative undertones that secularism tends to have in the Middle East. Many Islamist parties in the region are now portraying themselves with a conservative democratic image, emphasizing their appeal to a conservative society without a strict foundation in Islam. She explained that this shift signifies the active role and influence of youth in societal transformations.  

Historical challenges have also shaped the perspectives of Iraqi youth, notably when it comes to the failure of ISIS in destabilizing the 2003 state. Hadad noted a significant political shift within the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The KRG, which once held more power than the weaker federal government in Baghdad, now finds itself in a reversed dynamic, with Baghdad gaining strength and the KRG weakening. However, he highlighted that this shift may not be permanent, given the 20-year history of both governments not adhering to constitutional mandates and focusing on power dynamics instead. 

Baghdad’s does not want to eliminate the KRG, rather, it wants to debilitate it because a takeover would be overly intricate. This approach stipulates the potential for a more balanced relationship between Baghdad and the KRG. Hadad underscored that achieving a realistic equilibrium between the two governments will be a time-consuming process. The KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) are undergoing internal changes. Hadad asserted that an explicit understanding of their leadership is preliminary for a stable, rules-based federalist state. As the country moves towards greater stability, Hadad remains hopeful for the youth to constructively tackle issues like federalism, public employment, and constitutional debates. 

Hadad and Alshamary acknowledged the significant role of social media. Hadad criticized Iraqi politicians for their overreliance on social media and urged a shift back to more traditional forms of dialogue to mitigate the rising tribalism and creation of echo chambers, akin to Western trends. Hadad stresses that while social media brings benefits, the challenges it presents in Iraq mirror those in other countries, with a nuanced difference in freedom of speech, especially post-Tishreen, where individuals face risks for their online expressions. Alshamary added concerns about the alarming levels of misinformation on Iraqi social media and the decline of traditional media. She pointed out that the Iraqi state news channel remains the lone credible source, with other channels viewed skeptically due to perceived party affiliations and biases. Notably while Twitter is popular for showing trends, it is not the preferred platform for most Iraqis.

III. Foreign Policy and Economic Trajectory  

Over the years, Iraq has worked on building an independent foreign policy as part of refraining from partaking in regional divisions. Al Khirullah pointed out that Iraq recognizes that cooperation within the region is currently underdeveloped compared to other continents due to the challenge of building and maintaining trust among the region’s governments. This led to the fruition of the Baghdad conference to address challenges facing the region as a whole including terrorism, climate change, and energy cooperation, as noted by Al-Khirullah.

Silliman highlighted that foreign policy is essential for Iraq due to its strategic geopolitical location. Indeed, building effective foreign relations can provide economic, security, and political benefits, and can specifically address domestic issues like energy shortages and water problems, while also stimulating trade and tourism, and generally improving the political and economic prospects of the Iraqi youth. Mack noted that Iraq has been instrumental in fostering regional dialogues, such as the discussions between Riyadh and Tehran. However, Silliman pointed out that Baghdad is perceived to have excessive Iranian influence, complicating Iraq’s role as an impartial mediator. 

Nevertheless, Mack observed Iraq’s growing competence in managing its affairs with historically intrusive neighbors, particularly Turkey and Iran. Iraq’s strategic deepening of relations with the Arabian Peninsula, Jordan, and Egypt holds significant potential for regional transformation. Mack contended that Iraq could emerge as a pivotal transportation and energy nexus, potentially drive economic growth and stability in a historically volatile region. This carries the promise of infrastructural enhancement, greater diplomatic influence, and a more interconnected Middle East.  

Al-Khirullah and Mack both asserted that the relationship between Iraq and the United States has evolved beyond just security and defense. Economic relations have become a primary focus, and there’s an aim to attract American companies back to Iraq. Although there have been challenges on both sides, Al-Khirullahunderscored the ample economic opportunities to be explored since Iraq places significant value on not just large American companies, but also small and medium-sized enterprises. Also, Al-Khirullah recognized Kuwait as a significant supportive partner when it comes to investment opportunities, albeit Kuwait has only expressed interest thus far.  


Building a climate-resilient Iraq 

  • Yaseen suggests establishing climate-smart agricultural villages for arid environments, and to collaborate with countries like the United States and Australia who have expertise in managing water-stressed areas. 
  • Al Moumin and Jafar recommend embedding environmental awareness into early stages of academic curriculums and management. Al Moumin also advocates for a scholar-practitioner strategy to harness local knowledge and involve communities in decision-making processes. 
  • Eltahir recommends investing in agricultural research and technology for Iraq to be able to navigate water and heat shortages challenges. He also suggests adopting water-saving technologies, along with implementing an appropriate pricing system that could incentivize people to switch to using those systems technologies.  

Changing the youth perspectives on sociopolitical realities  

  • Alshamary urges an increase in youth engagement. She highlights that it is essential to actively involve youth in policymaking and implementation processes. She proposes that Iraq should encourage youth to venture into the private sector and entrepreneurial endeavors, leading to diversified economic growth and job creation. 
  • Hadad recommends adopting successful economic systems from other countries, leveraging the tried-and-tested strategies to foster economic diversification. This will can enable youth to sidestep common errors, and craft policies suited to Iraq’s needs.  

Foreign Policy and Economic Trajectory  

  • Al-Khirullah recommends fostering partnerships between Iraq and foreign private sectors.  
  • Silliman recommends adopting a technically driven diplomatic approach to tackle water-sharing issues, especially with Turkey. 
  • Silliman and Al-Khirullah urge the need to highlight Iraq’s civilization, culture, and traditions to improve its international standings, and to realize its rich resources and potential for development in various sectors, including education and culture.  
  • Mack suggests Iraq continues strengthening its democratic institutions and processes by leveraging its regional relationships. He supports Iraq’s current direction, including its maintenance of electoral democracy amidst regional engagement and internal challenges. 

Related Experts: Abbas Kadhim