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Shock-and-Awe Nation Building: Iraq's Neo-Liberal Reconstruction

[View of Sadr City in the days preceding the December 2005 Iraqi legislative election. Image from Wikimedia Commons.] [View of Sadr City in the days preceding the December 2005 Iraqi legislative election. Image from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Iraqi government’s contractual delivery of Iraqi oil fields to foreign multinationals is perhaps the most consequential long-term economic consequence of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. Contracts have been signed, production rights to massive oil fields sold, and a steady stream of propaganda disseminated about Iraqi oil production eventually rivaling that of Saudi Arabia and Iran. The celebratory narrative of Iraq’s expanding oil production has been marketed as an essential component of Iraq’s re-integration into a world economic system that will, we are told, become increasingly dependent on Iraqi oil, much of it waiting to be tapped. 

The de-nationalization of Iraq’s public wealth has been presented to the Iraqi public as a necessity due to Iraq’s destroyed infrastructure and lack of technical expertise after decades of war and economic sanctions, sanctions that are widely recognized to have “de-developed” Iraq. But what does this vision of Iraq’s privatized petro-future, the reversal of decades of social policy predicated on a nationalized public good, portend for Iraq’s people and their livelihoods? And how will reconstruction and “development” proceed in the context of foreign multinationals playing a dominant role in the context of the collapse and fragmentation of the Iraqi state? 

If Iraq’s 1958 anti-colonial revolution had national independence as its official aim, the most significant economic component of the nation’s post-colonial independence meant ending foreign control over Iraq’s natural resources and a redistribution of wealth—something almost all of Iraq’s disparate political groups could agree upon. The current Iraqi government’s rhetoric of national development, reconstruction, and future prosperity is dependent on the expansion of oil production and the increases in revenues it brings, and as oil production steadily increases, it has signed numerous contracts with the stated purpose of reconstructing Iraq’s public infrastructure, including plans to build tens of thousands of new housing units throughout the nation, including the construction of satellite cities in Baghdad and Basra. 

The Iraqi government’s national development plans today have much in common with mid-century modernization projects in the post-colonial world, projects defined by central government control, top-down planning, the absence of transparency in their planning and execution, and commissions awarded to foreign multi-nationals. The difference for Iraq today is that its re-integration into a neo-liberal world economy occurs under the aegis of an exceptionally weak, corrupt, and fractured central government that lacks the authority to provide even basic security and public services to its population. Under such conditions, multi-billion dollar development projects awarded to foreign multinationals represent not only the neo-liberal, shock-and-awe economic colonization of Iraq, but will have dramatic consequences for the spatial and material organization of Iraq’s population and the spaces they inhabit, a population that has already in the past decade experienced a massively disruptive re-ordering and re-distribution based on sectarian affiliation.   

And yet the Iraqi government, despite its inability to provide basic services, continues to announce one grandiose project after another, perhaps hoping that the promise of future prosperity will somehow ameliorate dissatisfaction with the dismal present. Such promises of national development linked to expanding oil production are not new for Iraq. In the 1950s, similar rhetoric accompanied the Iraqi monarchy’s ambitious, concerted development plan for the nation, led by the Iraq Development Board, that sought to modernize Iraq’s cities and infrastructure, and by extension, its people. One of the main sources of anxiety for the Iraqi monarchy and its British and American advisors, eager to prevent Iraq from coming under the influence of the Soviet Union in light of the growing strength of the Iraqi Communist Party, was the presence of slums on the outskirts of Baghdad, inhabited by Shurug, or Sharagwa, a pejorative term originally used to describe peasants from the rice growing regions of southern Iraq centered around the city of ‘Amarah who had migrated to Baghdad in the thousands and built mud huts, sarifas, in the eastern part of the city. 

Their migration to Baghdad was principally caused by British land tenure policy, which granted increased power to tribal shaykhs in exchange for their loyalty, thereby transforming Iraqi peasants into veritable slave laborers on land they had worked for centuries. More than the draw of city jobs and city life, the disruptive reorganization of the rural economy in the service of colonial interests motivated their rural to urban migration. For an Iraqi government intent on displaying to the world and to its citizens that it was modernizing, the presence of impoverished peasants living in mud huts on the outskirts of Baghdad and increasingly crowded in apartments in the city center necessitated some form of intervention, which would take shape in the “slum-clearance” programs, a synonym for forced relocation, that were implemented by the state. The threat Baghdad’s urban poor posed to the political order of the city was a constant source of anxiety for the monarchy, often expressed officially through fear of violence, contamination, and disease that the Shurug would spread in the city.

And yet the monarchy took little action to ameliorate the conditions suffered by the urban poor. The monarchy’s development plans were instead highlighted by signature architectural projects commissioned from world-renowned modernist architects including Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, Alvaar Alto, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Gio Ponti, among others. The involvement of these architects in shaping the material composition of a distant, non-European city heralded the rise of the global architect as a commodity, foreshadowing the way that buildings by “international” (i.e., “Western”) architects would have the power to create their own tourist industries and would become sites of pilgrimage by well-heeled tourists. Architects with international fame suddenly had the power to design projects that would attract the world’s attention to any city in the world, and could help a city like Baghdad, non-Western and “under-developed,” enter the Western narrative of a cosmopolitan modernity. 

Though much attention has been given to these high-profile projects whose goal was ostensibly to put Baghdad on the world map as a modern, cosmopolitan city, a process today replicated by architectural projects in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the mid 20th-century urban landscape of Baghdad was altered far more dramatically by the master plan for the city developed by the cold-war urban planner Constantinos Doxiadis, author of the “slum-clearing” programs, who sought to implement in Baghdad his high-modernist vision of using urban planning to fashion new citizens who embraced the free-market and liberal values of the West.  After the 1958 coup d’etat that ended the rule of Iraq’s Hashemite monarchy, the nationalist government of ‘Abd al-Karim Qassem dismantled the Iraq Development Board and formed the Ministry of Planning, which rapidly constructed Revolution City (Madinat al-Thawra) to house the thousands of impoverished Iraqis living in sarifas throughout Baghdad. The plan for Revolution City was based on the urban master plan for Baghdad crafted by Doxiadis and an extension of housing developments he designed in the northeast of the city. 

Revolution City was built as a city within a city, self-contained, effectively exiling Baghdad’s impoverished peasants far outside the city center to the northeast in an enclosed space. Encased in an urban grid and separated into sectors, with low-lying buildings and wide avenues, the physical layout of Revolution City resulted in the increased ability of the state for surveillance and control of what was regarded as a threatening population, not only politically, but also to the social and economic order of the city. Revolution City, whose inhabitants were predominantly Shi’a, would later be named Saddam City, and after the US invasion of Iraq, Sadr City. Media reports consistently refer to Sadr City as a “sprawling slum,” meant to signify a generic Third World slum—chaotic, unstable, lacking order and stability, impoverished and undisciplined, and ultimately threatening—despite its historical origins as a planned city meant to embody and produce order and instrumentalized rationalism. Sadr City is today a monument to the failed high-modernist 20th century social engineering projects designed for the urban poor throughout the world. 

Mid-20th century architecture and urban planning projects like Sadr City were part of a much larger historical process exemplifying the intersection of development ideology, modernist architecture, and urban planning. For Iraq today, despite increased revenues from oil production, political instability and violence have limited the extent to which massive urban planning projects have been implemented, though this may change in the near future. The current Iraqi government has signed contracts with South Korean and Turkish firms to build thousands of housing units throughout Iraq, including a city of one hundred thousand units to be developed near Basra, a massive reconstruction of Sadr City, and a satellite city of 100,000 new homes southeast of Baghdad.

If Sadr City was conceived of as a strong central government’s top-down solution to the problems of urban poverty, today Iraq is set to embark upon the neo-liberal model for the satellite city, replicating projects already built on the outskirts of cities like Cairo and Istanbul, designed not for the poor but for the upper-middle classes. As many scholars have observed, these satellite cities exist at the expense of the central city, suctioning away financial and natural resources from the historic center and disseminating them to the periphery, widening social, political, and cultural divisions. For Baghdad, a city in desperate need of reconstruction, projects like the Besmaya project are an extreme representation of the triumph of neo-liberal urban planning and, ultimately, the failure of Iraq’s regime to rebuild Iraq’s shattered cities. The neo-liberal satellite city represents an American-style suburban escape for the Iraqi elite: The low-density model of sprawl—wide streets, massive lawns, and low-density—is unsustainable, requiring infrastructural and natural resources that are, in Iraq, increasingly scarce. Despite the well-established critiques of the negative impact such development projects have on cities, on social cohesion, and on the environment, what Besmaya represents is the further “opening” of Iraq to speculative multinational capitalism and, if implemented, the material re-organization of its spaces and people based on a neo-liberal logic. 

1 comment for "Shock-and-Awe Nation Building: Iraq's Neo-Liberal Reconstruction"

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Great article! Thanks!

hshezaf wrote on May 16, 2012 at 06:40 AM

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