Is scandal-ridden Iraq 'the Watermelon State'?

Is scandal-ridden Iraq 'the Watermelon State'?
Iraq is rife with corruption, violence and human misery, but does the country's political elite care?
4 min read
11 Dec, 2014
Life in the watermelon state is tough [Getty]

After I heard that many Iraqis call their country "The Watermelon State", I looked up the term and found that it is rooted in Iraq's rich body of folklore.

In Arabic, calling something a watermelon is a bit like calling something a lemon in English - that is, it's pretty worthless.

The ancient story goes that a watermelon vendor travelled to Baghdad with seven watermelons to sell. Every time he passed by one of the six walls surrounding the city, a guard would take a watermelon.

When he finally arrived in the city, he was left with just one watermelon. He decided to complain to the king. After a series of adventures, the king confiscated the seventh watermelon and threw the man in jail.

The seller told the king: "I am now sure, your majesty, that you reign over a watermelon state."

Scandal piled upon scandal

     Abadi announced 50,000 soldiers who only existed on paper were being paid salaries.

I don't expect Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to be concerned with the Guinness Book of Records, as he is too busy to fully assess the disastrous state of affairs he inherited from his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki.

We do know, however, that Abadi found record-breaking numbers, fit for the record books. He announced that 50,000 soldiers who only existed on paper were being paid salaries. The costs they incurred from the Iraqi budget - not just in salaries, but in food, uniforms and weapons - amounted to billions of dollars.

An even more serious scandal, exposed by a member of the Iraqi parliament, is the payment of more than $248 billion over the past ten years to construction companies close to government officials for projects that never actually got built.

Those involved in these scandals escaped the country with their stolen money, and weren't stopped by anyone.

There are many more record-breaking scandals. The governor of the central bank uncovered a case in which billions of dollars were smuggled out of the country, and funds allocated for internally displaced people disappeared.

The case was merely categorised as "unsolved".

Similarly, nothing was done after it was discovered that billions of dollars had disappeared from the 2014 budget.

The Watermelon State is full of scandals. Thousands of bombs have devasted the country. The UN mission to Iraq recorded the death of 936 Iraqi civilians in November 2014 alone - and that doesn't even include Anbar province, where the Islamic State group run riot. The Chairman of the Baghdad Provincial Council has stated that the Iraqi capital witnesses 55 killings or kidnappings each week.

     Poverty levels have risen to 30 percent, the number of illiterate people to more than six million.

It was also discovered that the nephew of the current Iraqi Transportation Minister ran the notorious Kadhimiya gang.

This shocked the followers of news from the Watermelon State, particularly when it was discovered that the members of the gang were actually members of the minister's entourage.

It brought back memories of the scandal of the son of the minister's predecessor, who barred a Lebanese plane from landing in Baghdad airport and forced it to return to Beirut, because it had previously taken off without waiting for him.

A Facebook page was set up, named "The son of a minister is a minister and a half". Does the Guinness Book of Records require more outrageous numbers from us?

Poverty and violence

According to the ministry of planning, poverty levels in Iraq in 2014 have risen to 30 percent. Meanwhile, the ministry of education estimates the number of illiterate people in Iraq is more than six million.

The UN Mission to Iraq has announced the numbers of refugees and internally displaced people inside Iraq has reached a staggering 2.2 million.

There are 716 ministerial deputies, 4,535 general managers and an army of advisers in the political-civil service, reported a parliamentary committee. This is a burden that cost the budget billions of dollars every year.

The last number is from Transparency International, which places Iraq at the very bottom of the corruption scale.

Iraq scores 16 out of a possible 100 for incorruptibility. It clearly needs radical changes in its economic, social and cultural structures in order for it to be able to catch up with the rest of the world.

What is even more bitter for Iraqis to swallow, however, is that in the middle of this heap of scandals, no one in the political elite is embarrassed or ashamed.

There is no sense of moral responsibility, an absence of integrity, transparency and the ability to lead a state and a society.

Can we really blame Iraqis if they call their country "The Watermelon State"?

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic website.