The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Iraq Could Snatch Defeat From the Jaws of Soccer Triumph

If the ruling family in Doha hosted the soccer World Cup to showcase Qatar’s wealth and influence, then the government in Baghdad is counting on the Arabian Gulf Cup to send a more modest message: Iraq is back. Featuring all the nations of the Arabian Peninsula, the two-week competition in the southern port city of Basra and  is meant to mark the country’s reemergence from three decades of isolation, war, sectarian division and political strife.  

After a sparkling opening ceremony, the host nation easily beat a Saudi Arabian team still glorying in its victory over Lionel Messi’s Argentina at the World Cup. Visiting fans have marveled at Basra’s superb stadiums, its restaurants and malls, its picturesque corniche on the Shatt al-Arab waterway — and arguably most important of all, the absence of violence. For Iraqis, whether or not their team lifts the cup on Jan. 19, this is an all-too-rare moment of national pride.  

As Basra gathers up the bouquets, Baghdad will hope that investors everywhere take note. But once the tournament is concluded, attention will quickly return to Iraq’s political dysfunction: The government of Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, appointed in late October more than a year after the general election of 2021, may not be long for this world.

The backing of Iran makes it highly suspect in the eyes of most Iraqis. The country’s most popular politician, Moqtada al-Sadr, who was unable to form a government despite his party’s plurality of seats in parliament, retains the capacity to bring millions of supporters into the street and paralyze the government.

If Sudani can survive Sadr’s political maneuvering, he will have the unenviable task of managing Iraq’s economy, which is entirely dependent on oil exports. The prime minister dreams of oil remaining close to $100 a barrel. High prices through much of last year helped to cover the ineptitude of Iraq’s government, which is hoping to expand its export capacity in the months ahead.

But Iraq has been unable to convert oil revenues into opportunities for its young population. A comprehensive labor force survey conducted jointly last year by the Iraqi government and the International Labour Organization put youth unemployment at 35.8%. Joblessness, along with deep dissatisfaction with the government and anger at Iran’s meddling in Iraqi affairs, has powered the widespread protests that have wracked the country in the past three years.

Although Basra and Iraq’s southern provinces are somewhat more stable than Baghdad and its environs, they have not recovered from their long neglect during Saddam Hussein’s rule. The dictator starved them of resources after their failed uprising against him in the aftermath of the first Gulf War. Southerners complain that subsequent governments in Baghdad have not been any more attentive to their problems.

Yet the governments of these provinces, home to the bulk of the country’s oil and gas reserves, are if anything even more corrupt than the federal authorities. Unemployment rates are even worse than in Baghdad. Some of the most successful private enterprises are in the business of smuggling oil out and drugs in.

The south is also the setting for Iraq’s oncoming environmental disaster. Rising temperatures and a declining water table are leading to an exodus from southern cities. With the Tigris and Euphrates at historically low levels, not least because Turkey and Iran are diverting more water from the rivers for their own needs, Iraq’s agricultural base is imperiled.

Reversing these trends will require strong, efficient and clean government — in Baghdad as much as in Basra. That being unlikely, Iraqis are entitled to take their optimism wherever they can get it. Play on.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• A Democratic Iran Will Lead the Middle East: Robert D. Kaplan

• Crypto’s Future Could Look Like Iraq’s Past: Lionel Laurent

• Sadr’s Failures May Topple Iraq’s Democracy: Hussein Ibish

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering foreign affairs. Previously, he was editor in chief at Hindustan Times, managing editor at Quartz and international editor at Time.

More stories like this are available on

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.