Iraqis complain Basra market filled with Iranian produce

Shoppers said the imported products don’t taste as good as their Iraqi counterparts.
Sunday 02/06/2019
Limited options. Products on display at a shop in al-Ashar market in central Basra, May 9. (Maher al-Hashimi)
Limited options. Products on display at a shop in al-Ashar market in central Basra, May 9. (Maher al-Hashimi)

BASRA, Iraq - Al-Ashar traditional market, in the centre of Basra, is filled with shoppers looking to buy food during Ramadan. Inside the market, there are all sorts of products but Iraqis complain that little of what is on display is grown or made in Iraq. Most, they say, is imported from Iran.

“In the past, most of the products were planted here in Iraq. Now less than 30% of the vegetables in my stall are grown in Iraq. The rest is imported from Iraq’s neighbouring countries,” said Hussein Jameel, a 23-year-old vegetable vendor. “Tomatoes, green peppers, apples and many others are imported from Iran.”

Jameel, who began working in the business when he was 17, said some customers prefer Iraqi products despite the greater expense. Not everyone, however, can afford to buy Iraqi produce, even if they believe it is of better quality.

Vegetable vendor Maher al-Sudani said the abundance of cheap Iranian products makes it hard for Iraqi goods to compete.

“Hundreds of lorries loaded with food come from Iran to Basra across the Shalamcheh border daily. As a result, Basra’s local markets are filled with Iranian products with very competitive prices,” Sudani said.

“Every day, customers ask us about Iraqi vegetables but we could not sell them in the price that they are seeking. In the end, most of what we sell is foreign food, mainly from Iran.”

All prices go up during Ramadan but Iranian products remain cheaper. In the few occasions when the Iraq-Iran border is shut, Iraqi products become even more expensive.

“Customers buy Iranian food not for its quality but for its cheapness,” said Mohammed Laith a 30-year-old vegetable vendor.

Ali Sami, a local shopper, said he buys Iraqi produce. “I prefer Iraqi products because they taste better than the imported ones,” he said. “I am OK but what about the poor families who do not have enough money to buy the Iraqi products?”

Kareema Abdulwahhab, a 42-year-old mother shopping at al-Ashar market, said she remembered Iraqi food produce being more available and cheaper before 2003.

“The government before 2003 was providing us with the most essential food items, which helped us in saving money. Now, we work all weekdays just to buy certain food items,” she said.

Shoppers said the imported products don’t taste as good as their Iraqi counterparts.

“The market is filled with imported fruit from Egypt, Syria and Iran. I fight to find the Iraqi products but sometimes I have no option other than purchasing imported fruit,” said shopper Bassam Jassim. “I miss the Diyala oranges but what is available is from Egypt”.

Local observers said the Iraqi government needs to intervene to protect its food industry.

“Without government help in the future, Iraq will produce nothing,” said Alaa al-Badran, an agricultural consultant in Basra. “The government has not a clear food security plan and has not even taken any action to revive the farmlands.”

Naeem Sabah, dean of the Department of Economy at the University of Basra, said without government action, Iraq will continue to rely on food imports. “The huge food imports from Iran are harming Iraq’s economy. Iraqi products are unable to compete with the prices of their imported counterparts,” said Sabah.

The poor performance of the agricultural sector and lack of employment are driving migration to urban areas, generating pressure on service delivery and increasing urban poverty, a report from the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organisation stated.

After years of war and social unrest, Iraq is facing many challenges. In Iraq’s long-neglected south, there have been angry protests over poor services, corruption and unemployment.

Many Iraqi farmers said they feel abandoned by their government and were considering leaving their land to seek a better life.

People in southern Iraq said their agricultural land has suffered directly because of Iran’s water policies. When Iran withholds the water flow, it leaves Iraq to suffer from drought. On other occasions, they open flood gates, which drowns Iraqi farms.