It was my second shift in Basra, right in the middle of a sweltering summer.
I used to live in Dubai, therefore I have quite a good idea of what the heat is like in this part of the world. But, oh boy, the summer here is on another level. Imagine walking through hundreds of hairdryers blowing hot air from all directions. Imagine taking a shower late in the night but the water is still pouring hot. You get the idea.
For me who spent most of the time in the air-conditioned office, it wasn’t too bad. For the construction workers at the site, though, the environment is harsh. The same is very true for the residents of Basra, a city of over 2 million people. The situation is especially bad this year. Due to chronic lack of funding and corruptions, the infrastructure in the city is in dire straits. The residents have to endure power shortage, as well as salty, unusable water. This culminates in wide-spread protests from July to September. Basra is the oil-rich economic center of Iraq. Around 80% of the country’s revenue comes from here. Yet, the region is plagued by broken infrastructure and poverty. It is understandable why people are fed up with the government and are on the streets demanding for better basic services and job prospects (see Al-Jazeera’s article).
Detached from the outside world
Living in a confined space like the camp - in the middle of an oil field, and far away from all the protests - I am somewhat disconnected from the realities. We have everything to live comfortably. Reliable electricity, air-conditioned bedrooms, clean water, food. Local people don’t have much of these things. It is almost two parallel worlds, divided by T-walls and barbed wire. No wonder the foreign oil workers like us are always a target of some angry protestors. It’s not that we are oblivious to the situation. We discussed about it all the time in the office, but we were more concerned about our own safety. Would we be able to get out in time?
In early July, the protestors started gathering around the oil fields, blocking access in and out of the area. The security was heightened. The protestors surrounded one of the facilities outside the secured perimeter, threatening to disrupt the oil operation. It’s just a matter of time before they tried to break into the main area. Eventually, on one late morning, the protest erupted at one of the main checkpoints. The angry protestors tried to break through the barricade, and the security force (oil police) used live rounds, resulting in casualties.
During this time, several oil companies began to evacuate their foreign workers. My company eventually decided to evacuate its foreign staff. The notification was quietly sent to us the evening before. The convey left the camp early in the morning to avoid running into the protestors and roadblocks.
As we arrived safely to the airport, the mood lightened up. I was relieved to be out.
Working for an oil company in Iraq, to an extent, does pose a moral dilemma. The foreign workers come here to earn a good salary, twice or triple what we could get back home. We can leave the country any time there is an unrest or a threat of war. Sadly for local people in Basra, they are stuck with broken infrastructure, and a broken politics driven by oil money. Yet, their livelihood is so dependent on the oil industry that has enabled this endless cycle of unrest and political turmoil. By coming to work here, do I contribute anything good for the local people here, or rather, I am part of the exploitative oil industry?