Iraq’s Prime Minister inherited a series of fiscal crises. As his interim government struggles to avert a complete economic collapse, austerity measures may come at the expense of much-needed reforms.
Since taking office, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has faced a series of fiscal and security crises amid collapsing public services and protests. The collapse in global oil prices due to the coronavirus pandemic and the Saudi-Russia oil price war caused Iraq to face an internal solvency crisis as early as June. This fiscal crisis has short and long-term implications. In the short-term, Baghdad continuously struggles to pay public sector salaries, which required the state to borrow from the Central Bank over the summer. With low oil revenue, the state’s monthly profits are covering just over 50 percent of its expenses. In the longer-term, Iraq faces a looming macro-fiscal state collapse—potentially within the next year.
The state is struggling to cover its monthly expenses. Over successive governments, the size of the public sector has grown to the point that Iraq needs to spend more than its total revenue on basic payments—public sector salaries, pensions, food aid, and welfare—to keep a majority of Iraq’s population out of destitution. In 2019, oil revenue averaged $6.5 million per month, and with modest non-oil revenues (largely customs, well less than $1 billion per month), this covered operational expenses with a small amount left over for capital spending. Since the recovery of oil prices after the March collapse, Iraq’s monthly oil revenues have averaged just over $3 billion/month, hitting a high of $3.52 billion in August. In testimony before parliament in September, Finance Minister Ali Allawi revealed that with revenues at these levels, the government was still borrowing 3.5 trillion Iraqi Dinars (IQD) — just over $3 billion—from the Central Bank each month.
On October 10, as Iraq’s cash crunch became more acute, Allawi explained that state employee compensation rose from 20 percent of oil revenues in 2005 to 120 percent today. To help the public understand why the government of such an oil-rich country was broke, he explained that a government of this size should have at least $15 to 20 billion in funds to pay monthly expenses on an ongoing basis, but when this government took office, only about $1 billion was available. This is in part due to weak revenues, the result of low oil prices and Iraq’s adherence to OPEC’s limitations on oil exports. In the past, Iraq’s oil exports have reached 3.5 million barrels per day (bpd), yet they decreased to 2.5 million bpd in recent months. Prominent figures, including former oil minister Ibrahim Bahr al-Ulum, have argued in favor of leaving the OPEC agreement unilaterally. Yet Allawi, speaking before Parliament, explained that while he agreed that OPEC’s quota formula was unfair, Iraq needs the OPEC agreement to keep oil prices from collapsing. More recently, according to the Iraq Oil Report, the government has signaled that it may try to thread the needle by increasing exports by 250,000 barrels per day to satisfy critics—an amount above its quota, but still about 750,000 barrels per day below peak production, and thus hopefully too small an increase to incur Saudi retaliation.
Iraq’s monthly oil revenue to collapsed from $6.2 billion in January to just $1.4 billion in April. The figure recovered to $2.9 billion in May and has gradually improved since, but in August was still just $3.5 billion. Since the government only had about $3 billion in expendable reserves in May, it became clear that Iraq could not pay state employees in June. Salaries over the summer were paid as money became available. As late as July 28, the prime minister’s spokesman admitted that employees at the Culture & Antiquities Ministry (apparently the lowest priority), were still waiting to be paid.
The government saw this crisis coming and began preparing the public for austerity. Finance Minister Allawi made multiple public appearances, describing Iraq’s situation as dire and arguing for radical reform. In particular, he predicted that the government, while protecting base salaries, would make large cuts to employee benefits and other costs. On June 9, the cabinet followed through when it voted to implement a series of austerity measures, including cutting benefits, cutting unessential spending, and capping income from “double-salary” payments. Kadhimi’s advisor Hisham Daoud described the new policies as “not enough but only a start” toward reform.
Kadhimi, with no electoral base or political base of his own, has faced the fiscal crisis with a weak hand. This became clear when Parliament overwhelmingly rejected the government’s austerity policies on June 10, one day later. Even MPs friendly to the government described the government’s measures as premature, suggesting that they should try to raise revenue through customs first. Parliament eventually passed a borrowing law on June 24 to allow the government to borrow just enough to make basic payments. This law, however, prohibited the government from cutting benefits. Previously, the cabinet had the authority to cut benefits because, unlike salaries set by law, benefits were set by previous cabinet decrees. Thus, Parliament made the long-term problem worse.
In July, protests resurged in Baghdad as a result of the fiscal crisis. The shortage of money caused Iraq’s electricity shortage to worsen dramatically. Outgoing Electricity Minister Luay al-Khatteeb attributed the decline to two factors: lack of maintenance and the suspension of planned electricity projects.
The government has a few possible, but politically difficult, fixes at its disposal. They could cut the subsidy of roughly $1 billion per month to private electricity consumption, which exists because the ministry only collects a fraction of consumer payments. Finance Minister Allawi pointed out that “people don’t pay their electricity bills” and that “95 percent” of consumption costs was absorbed by the state, asserting that “electricity is not a constitutional right.” Yet such an effort will recall former prime minister Haider al-Abadi’s experience trying to extract electricity payments in 2017, which precipitated a strong protest movement. So far, Kadhimi has shown no sign of pushing the issue. His published comments during a cabinet meeting devoted to the electricity issue focused on “reducing bureaucracy” and improving maintenance, sidestepping the fact that maintenance workers have to be paid.
Iraq’s fiscal crisis comes on the heels of the political crisis of the outgoing government, which left the country without a budget for most of 2020. In such cases, Iraqi law allows the government to spend one twelfth of the previous year’s actual spending each month. Since this year’s revenues have been low, it never had the money to spend that much and simply spent what it had on basic payments. In September, the government released a budget for 2020 and the planned deficit was large—well over 100 percent—so as with past budgets much of the deficit will likely not be spent. The total anticipated revenues are 67.4 trillion dinars, or $57 billion, compared with proposed expenditures of 148.6 trillion dinars, or $125.7 billion. Oil revenue in 2019 was $78.5 billion yet is projected to be just $49.3 billion for 2020. The government withdrew the bill just two days after it arrived in parliament.
In September the government ran out of money, having used up the borrowing authority from the June bill. Given the population’s overwhelming dependence on state salaries, this brought the short-term financial problems to the fore. Furthermore, Parliament refused to authorize the new borrowing authority Allawi sought because the government had not submitted a “reform plan.” Thus in early October the government released a “White Paper” reform plan. The plan draws a broad and long path to reform that does not directly address the immediate crisis, except to the extent that its publication formally satisfies Parliament’s precondition for new borrowing.
An important part of Allawi’s efforts was his advocacy of Iraq accepting an International Monetary Fund “Stand-By Agreement” (SBA) which might be the only way to prevent a fiscal collapse next year. The agreement would also require spending cuts that parliament has already rejected. Allawi stressed that the IMF would not require cuts to programs protecting the poor, but rather to public sector compensation that, in Allawi’s view, Iraq needed to cut anyway.
This set the stage for a new debacle as the government then sent a new borrowing law to Parliament only to condemn it. A member of Parliament on the Finance Committee criticized the figures in the bill as irresponsible. Given the parliament’s role in aggravating the crisis, this was grandstanding. The looming parliamentary elections, due no later than 2022 and possibly earlier, are driving the political theater. Parliament will presumably pass an amended version of the government’s borrowing bill to allow the government to pay salaries. In the meantime, with salaries being paid late, disposable income is squeezed, further damaging an already weak economy. But Iraq could face a much worse scenario in 2021, as the IMF’s updated forecast for Brent oil prices projects $46.70 per barrel. Iraq’s Central Bank, which rescued the government over the summer, relies on a steady flow of dollars from oil revenues and given current prices range from $40 to $45, reserves are gradually declining. According to financial analyst Ahmed al-Tabaqchali, at current oil prices the Central Bank can continue to print money to fund the government “for about eight or nine months.”
In terms of immediate steps, at a minimum, a devaluation of the Iraqi dinar (long pegged at 1,182 to the dollar) seems likely in 2021. This would relieve some pressure on the Central Bank and make the government’s expenses cheaper (since its income is in dollars), but it would also drive up inflation over time. The bigger threat is that by mid-to-late 2021, the Central Bank will no longer be able to support the government, forcing austerity through non-payment of operational expenses, including salaries.
It is clear that the government needed to adopt a policy of cutting public sector expenses while increasing its capital investment in agriculture and industry and devoting more resources to education and health. Kadhimi’s reform measures in June were too little, too late. Still, the austerity that Parliament has resisted will be inevitable if oil prices do not rise dramatically in the months to come. A key priority from an international point of view is that the IMF, as a condition for its loans, impose upon Iraq the reforms for which Allawi has been advocating and which parliament has so rejected. It does not seem likely that reform will come to Iraq by any other means.
Kirk H. Sowell is the publisher of the biweekly newsletter Inside Iraqi Politics (www.insideiraqipolitics.com). Follow him on Twitter @uticarisk.
 In most of these comments, Allawi gives the figures in Iraqi dinars. I have converted them to dollars. Thus, he said, for example, that the Finance Ministry had 1.3 trillion IQD when he came into office. This is slightly over $1 billion.
 When a family received a payment for a deceased breadwinner and receives another government benefit.
 Testimony by the finance minister and discussion of the budget starts at 1:38:00.
 In the previously cited video from Parliament on September 8, he refers to the IMF briefly around 2:25:00, then again around 2:48:00, and once more near then end of the four-hour video in response to an MP attacking the IMF option.
 The reading begins at 00:09:00 and the comments referred to in the text follow.
 Author interview conducted on October 28, 2020 via Skype.More on:
The image above is of A Palestinian engineer gestures as he stands next to solar panels in Tubas, in the occupied West Bank July 23, 2018. VIA REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman
If there is one thing that is certain in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, it is that future stability is uncertain. On top of the coronavirus crisis, there is civil war in Syria, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the recent tragic explosion in Beirut, and the ongoing threats posed by global warming. With such prospects, what can be done to secure energy needs in the region in the present and the future?
The key lies in continuing to build and expand on regional cross border energy links. The interconnection of electricity lines and gas pipelines might help mitigate the joint energy shortage challenges that the region faces. Countries must also link energy infrastructure so that they can transport energy to where it is needed most. Only such inter-connectivity can overcome threats posed to regional energy security, whether manmade or natural.
Is it sustainable that, while Tel Aviv residents enjoy 24/7 electricity, Gazans ninety kilometers away sit in the dark for more than half the day? Does it make sense that Palestinians, who are among the most economically challenged in the region, rely on the most expensive electricity, using diesel in the Gaza Strip? As Lebanon is thrust into even deeper economic woes, why do the Lebanese people have to generate electricity using expensive power barges? Why must blackouts be the norm in Iraq despite the abundance of natural resources?
No state can be secure as long as its neighbor’s basic energy and water needs are not met.
While the MENA region faces many challenges to stability, one important mitigating factor could be the abundance of natural resources, if used wisely. This could be the basis for cooperative, cost-efficient generation of electricity from both conventional energy sources, such as natural gas, and unconventional sources, including renewables.
Ideally, the MENA region should be generating most of its electricity from clean sources. One of the main natural resources it enjoys in abundance is the sun. Thus, solar energy holds the key to a brighter and more sustainable solution for the region. Many of the most attractive solar panel projects are actually coming from the oil-rich Gulf, with the United Arab Emirates setting an example both in terms of actual projects and innovation. Impressive renewable energy projects in Jordan and Egypt can be emulated in the Palestinian territories, which is compelling considering the potential. Importantly, this will require cooperation and support from Israel, which is making its own strides in the renewable energy sphere.
As countries seek to diversify their sources of electricity generation, it is worth noting that nuclear energy is re-emerging as a significant source after advancements in safety measures and the adoption of state-of-the-art technologies in recent years. The United Arab Emirates is one example of this.
Natural gas offers much cleaner fuel than diesel or coal and exists in abundance in the MENA region. As such, natural gas constitutes an optimal transitional fuel towards cleaner renewable sources. A transitional fuel is necessary so that basic electricity needs of developing countries are met and electricity grids have been upgraded sufficiently to enable the off-take of the electricity generated from renewable energy.
The natural gas discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean offshore Egypt, the Gaza Strip, and Israel, among others, offer a unique opportunity for energy cooperation in the region and beyond. The key lies in developing these resources and in constructing the means for delivering them to consumers in the region and beyond.
The establishment of the EastMed Gas Forum in Cairo in January 2019 under Egyptian sponsorship is a step in the right direction, recognizing not only the importance of the gas reserves of the Eastern Mediterranean, but also the need for cooperation in developing and transporting the gas to regional and international consumers. Turkey is noticeably absent from this Forum and has contested the rights of some of the Forum members to their gas reserves (despite US and EU rejection of the Turkish claims). This may actually further strengthen alliances within the Forum, as members seek to ward off any Turkish threats to their gas reserves.
The Gaza Marine gas field needs to be developed alongside other fields currently in development off the coasts of Egypt and Israel. This is so that Palestinian consumers of electricity in the Palestinian territories will benefit from this natural resource alongside Israeli consumers benefitting from gas from the Tamar, Leviathan, Tanin, and Karish gas fields. Moreover, the planned regional networks of gas pipelines, such as the Gas for Gaza pipeline to the Gaza Strip, the gas pipeline to Jenin, and the Israeli pipelines to Jordan and Egypt, are the means through which gas from these offshore sources can be delivered to consumers.
While cross-border energy projects cannot possibly be erected without enduring political support, they must transcend politics for the sake of the future of energy security in the region. And, although cross-border energy projects are not a substitute for political solutions for the Palestinian territories or elsewhere, they can constitute an important backbone of state building and regional cooperation efforts. Energy projects can help ensure that basic future energy needs are met, especially when considering political uncertainties throughout the region. Furthermore, establishing energy security will be critical in guaranteeing water security.
It is likely that the regional wars of the future will be over depleting water resources, which cannot possibly be addressed unless there is sufficient energy to desalinate and pump water to help meet the growing demand. This threat is being compounded by the already visible impacts of climate change in the region, which are set to worsen as more energy will be required for residential cooling purposes, agriculture, and industry.
The solution to these energy challenges lies in developing these natural resources and in establishing a network of energy infrastructure that consists of gas pipelines and electricity lines constructed across the region. Building on the Arab gas pipeline and the Arab electricity grid is important. The recent upgrade of the electricity connection between Jordan and the West Bank is also encouraging in this regard.
In commercial terms, the acquisition of Noble Energy by Chevron could serve to incentivize more ambitious regional deal-making considering Chevron’s global strength and footprint in the MENA region.
Putting in place the necessary energy building blocks today will help ensure that an eight-year-old child in Gaza or Beirut need not sit in the dark doing homework by candlelight—a hazard that costs lives annually in Gaza and elsewhere—in the future. Experience has shown that mutual dependencies can help mitigate political tensions, creating incentives to cooperate and possibly facilitating a positive momentum towards solving some of the MENA region’s thornier outstanding political conflicts.
Ariel Ezrahi is the Director of Energy at the Office of the Quartet in Jerusalem. His views do not reflect those of his employer.
Energy generation through renewable sources is improving exponentially and is something that is no longer simply better for the planet but also for investors. Nevertheless, the oil industry has no intention of voting itself out of office and will continue extracting and exploiting the planet’s oil reserves. We don’t have time to wait for investors to tire of these companies. The much-needed end of the oil industry should be brought about not by its profitability or otherwise, because it could linger on for decades, but instead through political decisions guided by scientific evidence, links to which can be found throughout this article. The writing is on the wall, and has been for years; when will we bother to read it? Follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn. Check out my website.
Enrique Dans Teaching Innovation at IE Business School since 1990, and now, hacking education as Senior Advisor for Digital Transformation at IE University. BSc (Universidade de Santiago de Compostela), MBA (Instituto de Empresa) and Ph.D. in Management Information Systems (UCLA).
Recent oil market developments reveal a strong and sustained declining trend in the global oil demand, which is now expected to peak in 2040 or earlier. This outlook spells a significant fiscal sustainability challenge for the GCC region, says a new International Monetary Agency (IMF) report. The expected speed and size of the fiscal consolidation programmes in most GCC countries may not be sufficient to stabilise their wealth. These adjustments need to be accelerated and sustained over a long period of time, in line with the expected path of hydrocarbon revenue, says the study titled “The Future of Oil and Fiscal Sustainability in the GCC Region.” The oil market is undergoing fundamental change; new technologies are increasing the supply of oil from old and new sources, while rising concerns over the environment are seeing the world gradually moving away from oil. The combination of rising supply amid the global push to reduce reliance on fossil fuels is expected to continue, heralding what has been dubbed “the age of oil abundance”, the report says. This spells a significant challenge for oil-exporting countries, including those of the GCC who account for a fifth of the world’s oil production, says the report. The GCC countries have recognised the need to reduce their reliance on oil and are all implementing reforms to diversify their economies as well as fiscal and external revenues. Nevertheless, as global oil demand is expected to peak in the next two decades, the associated fiscal imperative could be both larger and more urgent than implied by the GCC countries’ existing plans. At the current fiscal stance, the region’s financial wealth could be depleted by 2034. Fiscal sustainability will require significant consolidation in the coming years. Its speed is an intergenerational choice. Fully preserving current wealth will require large upfront fiscal adjustments. More gradual efforts would ease the short-term adjustment burden but at the expense of resources available to future generations, it says. Anticipating and preparing for what comes next will be critical for oil-exporting regions. Oil remains critical to both external and fiscal revenues and overall GDP of the GCC states. A legacy of sharply rising fiscal expenditure during 2007–14 followed by a steep decline in hydrocarbon revenues have weakened fiscal positions in the GCC region. The decline in oil revenues sparked a period of intensive reforms, including sizable fiscal consolidations. Nevertheless, the effect of lower hydrocarbon revenue is yet to be fully offset. The resulting fiscal deficits have lowered the region’s net financial wealth during 2014–18, the report says. A path of prolonged deceleration in hydrocarbon revenue growth would add to this decline in wealth. At the current fiscal stance, the region’s existing financial wealth could be depleted in the next 15 years, warns the report. Although the importance of non-oil sectors has increased in recent decades, many of them still rely on oil-based demand either in the form of public spending of oil revenue or private expenditure of oil-derived wealth. The 2014–15 oil price shock, which notably slowed non-oil growth in most of the region, was a stark reminder of this dependence, it says. Recognising this challenge, the GCC countries are all implementing programmes to diversify their economies as well as fiscal and external revenues away from oil. The success of these programmes will be central to achieving strong and sustainable growth in the years to come, says the report.The report estimates that growth of global oil demand will significantly decelerate, and its level could peak in the next two decades. In assessing the long-term oil market prospects, it is useful to look beyond the geopolitical and cyclical factors and focus on trends that are robust to temporary shocks. Growth of global demand for natural gas is also expected to slow, although it is expected to remain positive in the coming decades. The fiscal policy need implied by this challenge is both larger and more urgent when compared to GCC countries’ existing plans. In the context of broader goals of sustainability and sharing of exhaustible oil wealth with future generations, all GCC countries have recognised the lasting nature of their challenge and are already planning continued fiscal adjustment in the context of their broader strategic long-term visions. Managing the long-term fiscal transition will require wide-ranging reforms and a difficult intergenerational choice. Continued economic diversification will be important but would not suffice on its own. Countries will also need to step up their efforts to raise non-oil fiscal revenue, reduce government expenditure, and prioritise financial saving when economic returns on additional public investment are low. While fiscal starting positions are still strong in a global context in four of the six GCC countries, the longer-term fiscal challenges are substantial, the report adds. –
Despite regional turmoil, there are two critical areas of focus to work on simultaneously.
Despite 2020 looking to be a year of volatility, the President and CEO of the Atlantic Council expressed his optimism at the “remarkable” human potential of the MENA region.
In statements ahead of the fourth annual Global Energy Forum in Abu Dhabi, Frederick Kempe noted that despite regional turmoil, there are two critical areas of focus to work on simultaneously.
“One of them is to reduce conflict, to wind down the tensions of the region. But at the same time, you have to unlock the remarkable human potential of the Middle East and the GCC,” he said.
He told the Emirates News Agency (WAM), his predictions for 2020, noting that it would be a volatile year, particularly in the energy industry.
“Geopolitical uncertainty will play a larger role on energy prices this year,” Kempe added.
Reflecting on 2019 events, he noted, “It’s remarkable that energy prices have remained so low through everything we’ve gone through – Iranian sanctions, Libyan turmoil, Iraqi uncertainty.”
However, he added, “despite all that and partly because of the glut of oil we’ve had on the market, and the US oil and gas production, we’ve kept prices remarkably stable for a long period of time.”
“I think the big question is can that hold out in 2020,” he continued.
“You see prices rise by four percent when you get into a crisis, suddenly it seems as we’re in a de-escalatory phase if prices drop by five percent, and I think that’s what we’re going to see.”
Commenting on recent US-Iran tensions, and their impact on clean energy transitions, Kempe said, “A lot of people are focusing on the wrong lessons from the last few days. No doubt, there’s been a lot of tension.
“No doubt there was, for a period of time, increased risk of violent conflict. On the other hand, both parties stood back from that,” he added.
“No one in the region wants an escalation of the current tensions,” he stressed, adding, “Everyone that participated in de-escalating came to that. I think that’s promising.”
“I think all parties see no gain in war. The US doesn’t see any gain, Iran doesn’t see any gain; certainly, the Arab and GCC countries don’t see any gain,” the Atlantic Council President emphasised.
When asked to comment on how GCC countries, like the UAE, can play a role in the 2020 energy agenda, Kempe said, “If you look at the GDP of this region, and if you took the size of the Middle East population and put it anywhere in the world, you would have three times the GDP.”
World Bank figures indicate the GDP figures for the Middle East and North Africa reached $3.611 trillion in 2018.
“So imagine how much low-hanging fruit there is here and how much opportunity there is,” he said.
According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, IRENA, figures, the adoption of renewable energy technologies created 11 million new jobs at the end of 2018.
When asked to comment on how countries and international bodies can partner further to see effective climate action, Kempe revealed that through the Council’s Adrienne Arsht Centre for Resilience, the MidEast Centre, and the Rockefeller Foundation, a new initiative will see one billion individuals become resilient to climate change, tensions and crises.
More details on the announcement will be made as part of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week 2020 next week.
The Atlantic Council Global Energy Forum is an international gathering of government, industry, and thought leaders to set the energy agenda for the year.
Taking place in the UAE capital from January 10-12, the 2020 iteration of the forum will focus on three key themes: the role of the oil and gas industry in the energy transition, financing the future of energy and interconnections in a new era of geopolitics.
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Earth has been used as a building material for at least the last 12,000 years. Ethnographic research into earth being used as an element of Aboriginal architecture in Australia suggests its use probably goes back much further.
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