Young Iraqis use innovation to make a living in oil-rich south

Karrar Alaa, 26, invested in a car and transformed it into a coffee shop on wheels.
Thursday 21/06/2018
Iraqi Karrar Alaa (L), aged 26, sells coffee by his travelling cafe vehicle in a street in Basra on June 17. (AFP)
Iraqi Karrar Alaa (L), aged 26, sells coffee by his travelling cafe vehicle in a street in Basra on June 17. (AFP)

BASRA, Iraq - From a roving cafe to scrap metal sculptures, young Iraqis unable to tap into the country’s oil wealth are having to find creative ways to make a living.

While their parents generally went straight into public-sector jobs after graduation, the job market for Iraqi youths is starkly different in the post-Saddam Hussein era. In the decade that followed the US invasion and the president’s ouster in 2003, authorities continued to increase state hirings — with a heavy dose of nepotism.

Now, as 26-year-old Karrar Alaa discovered, there are no more guarantees.

Three years ago, he was counting on his business degree leading to a public-sector job in the southern port city of Basra. Tired of waiting, he has turned entrepreneur.

After gathering up all his savings and borrowing money from relatives, Alaa invested in a car and transformed it into a coffee shop on wheels. The “Coffee 2 Go” car has a giant plastic cup mounted on the roof, while an image of a cup of cappuccino and coffee beans is emblazoned on the body.

“It’s the first of its kind in Basra. I got the idea from a video shot in Europe and posted on Facebook,” he said.

An initial investment of $20,000 has led to daily earnings of around $120 from cups of coffee made in a machine installed in the car boot.

Mashreq Jabbar earns similar sums from his little bookshop squeezed into a corridor of a Basra fashion mall.

“Renting a shop costs $6,000 a month. I only pay $2,500 for my hallway,” said the slim 26-year-old, as he tidied shelves of school books, romantic novels and poetry collections.

The geology graduate had also hoped to get a job as a public official, confident that his degree would make him employable in the oil industry but, even though the sector accounts for 89% of the state budget and 99% of Iraq’s export revenues, it provides only 1% of jobs because most posts are filled by foreigners.

The lack of opportunities is nationwide; from Baghdad to Mosul in the north and from the agricultural east to the western desert. It is not uncommon to find engineers working as taxi drivers or sandwich stalls manned by literature graduates in a country of avid readers.

Officially, 10.8% of Iraqis are jobless but youth unemployment is twice as high in a country where 60% of the population is aged under 24. A mushrooming number of private universities — Baghdad has around 30 — has made the situation worse among graduates.

The private sector that emerged after Saddam’s rule failed to fill the employment gap, with many young Iraqis holding out for the coveted public-sector posts.

“The common view is that there’s no choice but to work in the public sector,” said Ahmed Abdel Hassan, an economics professor at the University of Basra. “Young people who go to work in the private sector say it’s a temporary move before getting a post in the public sector.”

Even Basra’s entrepreneurs see the benefits. Alaa noted the social security and pension perks and Jabbar pointed to civil servants’ guaranteed salaries.

Iraqi Karrar Alaa (L), aged 26, sells coffee by his travelling cafe vehicle in a street in Basra on June 17. (AFP)
Iraqi Karrar Alaa (L), aged 26, sells coffee by his travelling cafe vehicle in a street in Basra on June 17. (AFP)

Many of those holding out for a state job, however, are still living in their parents’ house.

Omar Abdallah, 28, had pinned his hopes on getting a teaching job at the end of his studies in fine art. Iraq once had a high-quality and free education system but that was left in tatters following the international embargo of the 1990s after Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait.

Having failed to land a job and with no capital to start a business of his own, Abdallah began collecting scrap metal.

“I could only count on myself and my talent,” he said at his family home, where one room serves as both his workshop and exhibition space.

Abdallah has transformed bicycle chains into scorpions, cutlery into dragonflies and used nuts and bolts to make motorbike models. In a good month he can sell half a dozen sculptures, charging $200- $250 apiece.

“People love my sculptures,” he said proudly. “They tell me: ‘How did you manage to make something so beautiful out of rubbish?'”

(Agence France-Presse)