Stability has encouraged private investment and the mushrooming of small businesses throughout the country. The government claims that since 2010 it has been issuing an average of 8,000 new business permits a month. The revival of the private sector, with small and medium businesses taking the lead, represents a change of economic model in a country used to the domination of the public sector in a centrally planned and controlled system of government. Saddam Hussein, who presented himself as the champion of "Arab socialism", would have complained of wild capitalism spreading throughout Iraq. Most Iraqis, however, seem to enjoy the opportunity to return to business traditions rooted in thousands of years of history.
Also helping the economic uplift are the nation's growing oil revenues. In 2007, Iraq's oil income fell to just a few hundred million dollars. By 2011, however, it had reached $87 billion, an all-time record. The industry is still far from realising its full potential. Iraq now meets the export quota fixed for it by Opec. But it could double output to around six million barrels a day. Over the past five years, Iraq has signed oil exploration and exploitation contracts with over 70 companies from 40 countries.
Opponents of the toppling of Saddam Hussein claimed that the US invaded Iraq to "steal its oil". However, American oil giants have been strangely reluctant to commit to Iraq, leaving the field to companies from nations that opposed the war, notably France, Russia, India, Turkey and China. One reason for American oil's low profile may be a desire not to ruffle feathers in Saudi Arabia and other Arab oil countries still unable to gauge the impact of the Iraqi return to centre stage. There is also the fact that some of Iraq's most important oil reserves are located astride borders with Iran and Kuwait, forcing would-be investors to take the possibility of future conflicts into account. Another problem is the inability of the Iraqi National Assembly to reach final agreement on laws concerning the granting of oil contracts and the sharing of oil revenues in accordance with the country's semi-federal political structure. Nevertheless, boasting one of the largest, if not the largest, reserves of oil in the world, Iraq is destined to emerge as an energy superpower.
There are, of course, dark patches on what is a bright economic picture. Some cities, including Baghdad, still suffer power outages for several hours each day, a hard-to-bear fact of life especially in the summer where temperatures can reach 50°C. The whole country is dotted with half-finished and, in some cases, abandoned public projects. There are roads that lead nowhere and huge ditches dug and abandoned for no discernible reason. Many of these public projects served as conduits for corruption on a gargantuan scale. The Anti-Corruption Committee in Baghdad estimates that since 2003 a whopping $50 billion may have been siphoned off through such projects.
The gravy train did not carry only Iraqis; hundreds of small and big Western, Turkish and Iranian companies and thousands of foreign consultants and advisers also hitched a ride. Stories about high officials or their relatives running away with suitcases filled with crisp dollar notes are part of the weekly fare in the Iraqi press, alongside reports by investigative journalists exposing fictitious posts for influential individuals. It is hard to gauge the actual extent of the corruption or to discover the precise identity of all those on the take. However, ostentatious signs of wealth indicate the emergence of a nouveau riche elite bent on repeating the worst excesses of other "oil Arabs".
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