Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 24 September 2020

Iraq's finance minister calls for urgent reforms to revive its economy

The country's economy is projected to shrink 10 per cent this year, following a drop in oil prices

Iraq's finance minister Ali Allawi cautioned that the country's economy could reach 'irreversible lows' if urgent reforms are not executed. AFP    
Iraq's finance minister Ali Allawi cautioned that the country's economy could reach 'irreversible lows' if urgent reforms are not executed. AFP    

Iraq's economy could reach irreversible lows within the next year unless urgent reform measures are adopted, its finance minister has said.

"Reform is inevitable," said Ali Allawi, who is trying to stabilise Iraq's economy after an oil price crash that cut state revenues by half.

"If we do not amend the situation throughout the next year, we may face shocks we cannot fix," he told AFP.

Iraq's economy is already projected to shrink 10 per cent this year after oil prices dropped from more than $50 per barrel to about $20.

Reform is inevitable

Ali Allawi

Opec's second-biggest oil producer relies almost exclusively on its crude exports to fund its budget, which includes a bloated public sector and mass subsidies.

After taking over the finance ministry in May, Mr Allawi had expressed shock at the liquidity situation.

"A government should normally have at least one-and-a-half months of spending in its accounts in case of emergencies or shocks, but in reality there was only a tenth of this amount. There should have been 10-15 trillion Iraqi dinar (up to $12 billion/Dh44bn), but there were only 2tn dinars," he then said.

Iraq spends at least $4.5bn a month just to pay public workers and run the government.

"The finances are worse than it was in 2005 or 2006. We are in an existential economic situation," said Mr Allawi, 73, who was also finance minister at that time.

Then, Iraq was paying public salaries to about a million people, with oil prices at around $35.

Now, a barrel sells for the same amount – but the state is responsible for 4.5 million workers, 2.5 million retirees and about a million welfare recipients.

At his family home in Baghdad, Mr Allawi told AFP he hoped to pay June and July's public salaries on time by borrowing internally.

"We can do this up to a certain ceiling, but if we exceed that ceiling then we'll face serious risks," he said.

To navigate these dangers, Mr Allawi said, he would propose a full reform plan to parliament within three months, including austerity measures that could last two years.

He hopes to cut senior salaries, halt "double-dipping" for Iraqis who receive multiple state welfare packages, access aid from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, and boost Iraq's non-oil revenues to make it less vulnerable to dramatic price changes.

Economic experts – including Mr Allawi – have advocated such steps ever since the 2003 US-led invasion.

"If oil prices stay at this level for a year, and our expenses stay the same, without a doubt we're going to hit a wall," Mr Allawi said.

"We can't lead a country, particularly from the economic side, by hoping oil prices rise enough to cover costs."

Mr Allawi, who served as finance minister in an Iraqi transitional government in 2005, finds himself in a similar position now: part of a short-term cabinet that has inherited a web of challenges from its predecessors.

Former prime minister Adel Abdel Mahdi's cabinet discussed austerity measures at length but never implemented them, top Iraqi officials said, fearing backlash from the public and the political elite using state coffers to buy influence.

I'm not asking them to trust us first, but to wait for the measures that we will take if they are fair, equitable and useful

Ali Allawi

Instead, public outrage has focused on new prime minister Mustafa Al Kadhemi and Mr Allawi.

The new cabinet sought to save by cutting monthly disbursements to former political prisoners and retirees earning a double-wage, but that sparked accusations it was targeting the country's most vulnerable citizens while turning a blind eye to corruption among top officials.

Iraq is listed as the 16th most corrupt country in the world by Transparency International, with about $450bn in public funds vanishing into the pockets of shady politicians and businessmen since 2004.

Asked if he thought he could regain the people's trust, Mr Allawi admitted it would be a tremendous task.

"There have been major failures on behalf of successive governments in recent years, leading to a loss of confidence between the state and citizens," he said.

"I'm not asking them to trust us first, but to wait for the measures that we will take if they are fair, equitable and useful."

Updated: June 23, 2020 03:25 PM

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