Iraq: oil industry brain drain

Wall Street Journal, 22 August [$]:

Mohammed al-Jibouri belongs to Iraq’s premier business fraternity: the geologists, engineers and finance men who run the country’s vast oil industry.

Through decades of war and trade sanctions, these professionals kept Iraq pumping. By last year, Mr. Jibouri, an oil economist, was a top contender to head the State Oil Marketing Organization, a powerful agency that sells Iraq’s crude oil abroad.

But senior Iraqi oil men were getting caught up in bitter political feuds. Other senior oil men were being murdered by insurgents. One of Mr. Jibouri’s aides was gunned down. So instead of lobbying for the important oil post, the 57-year-old industry veteran packed up late last year and moved to Jordan, joining a legion of elite technocrats fleeing the chaos.

Iraq, sitting atop the biggest conventional oil reserves after Saudi Arabia and Iran, is facing what may be the direst threat yet in its eight decades as a petroleum powerhouse: a brain drain. When the Saddam Hussein regime fell in 2003, a large cadre of oil professionals who had stayed on through Mr. Hussein’s wars and purges were seen as the key to expanding Iraqi output. But the ranks of these technocrats are thinning rapidly.

Of the top 100 or so managers running the Iraqi oil ministry and its branches in 2003, about two-thirds are no longer at their jobs, according to current and former Iraqi officials and outside analysts. The ministry says it doesn’t track this but it says about 100 officials and lower-level engineers and technicians have been murdered since the U.S.-led invasion, along with about 150 oil-field security guards. Among recent victims: the head of Iraq’s domestic fuel-distribution company and a high-ranking colonel in the force that protects oil fields.

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In the summer of 2004, he returned when a fresh U.S.-brokered government named him Iraq’s trade minister. But Mr. Jibouri says the graft he saw spreading through the bureaucracy around him gradually turned him off government work. “I was engulfed by corruption. The flood was stronger than me,” he says.

After Iraq’s first free elections last year, politicians sounded out Mr. Jibouri about staying on as trade minister or taking the top job again at Somo. But he says many of the top technicians he had worked with had left, and political appointees bloated the agency.

His other worry was violence. Last year, just before Mr. Jibouri stepped down as trade minister, gunmen killed one of his deputies, riddling the man’s car with bullets as he drove to work.

A few months later, Mr. Jibouri packed up and moved his wife and three children to Amman. “I wanted to stay in Baghdad,” Mr. Jibouri said on a recent afternoon over grilled fish at a new Amman restaurant serving Iraqi dishes and filled with exiles. “But it was impossible. If you are honest you will be killed.”