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With few job openings, Iraqi youth find work in creative ways

As Iraq’s economy struggles, Al-Monitor spoke to young Iraqis who are making money via video games, social media and other means.
Iraq video games

BAGHDAD — In Iraq's struggling economy, more young people are trying creative ways to make money. 

Many young Iraqis have traditionally looked to the public sector for work, but the government only passed its 2023 budget on Monday after months of delays, and ministries were reluctant to hire in the interim. Moreover, the dinar has been falling against the US dollar since the government of Mohammed Shia al-Sudani took office last October. High oil prices provided a boost in 2022, but corruption remains rampant and the war in Ukraine has led to higher food prices. 

Ahmed Al-Amir, who is now a 28-year-old social media star from Baghdad, graduated from the University of Baghdad in 2016 with a degree in economics, but failed to find work in his field.

“There are not enough job opportunities for young people in Iraq, and this is why we see young people go out and protest,” Amir told Al-Monitor. “I tried jobs at banks and private companies. The first question they would ask is whether I have work experience. This questions destroys the youth of Iraq. We are fresh graduates.”

Amir started a restaurant, but it failed. He then worked as a taxi driver — one of many jobs he took that had nothing to do with economics. In 2021, he desperately joined thousands of other Iraqis and traveled to Lithuania with the hopes of illegally entering the European Union via Poland. 

“All roads and opportunities were closed to me in Iraq,” he said. “I thought emigration was the only way to find a future.” 

It was in Lithuania that Amir first came up with the idea for a TikTok channel, which he called the day of an Iraqi in Lithuania. It soon grew, and Amir now has more than one million followers on Instagram. Between the ad revenue from his Facebook, Instagram and TikTok pages, Amir makes around $2,000 a month. 



Amir’s success is unusual, however, and Iraqi social media users face an uphill battle monetizing their channels. YouTube, for example, pays Iraqi YouTubers considerably less per 1,000 views than they do other countries, according to several metrics. 

There are also structural problems. Internet speeds in territory controlled by the Iraqi federal government are relatively slow, often not exceeding 3G rates. 

Ali Adel earns around $500 a month by streaming video games online, through fan donations and sponsorship from technology stores in Iraq. He moved from Baghdad to Sulaymaniyah in the Kurdistan Region which he said has relatively faster internet speeds.

“I tried everything I could to get good internet in Baghdad for online video gaming, but I failed,” Adel  told Al-Monitor. Speeds in Kurdistan are often 4G LTE or faster. 

However, Adel said that Iraqis engaging in competitive video gaming, or esports, face disadvantages. “The delay in communication between gamers makes things unfair, as there is a large delay between you and the other players in the matches,” he said. Also, Adel said he has lost opportunities to play with prominent gamers due to power cuts. 

Adel is thankful he is able to make a living playing video games. His cousin, for example, paid a bribe to secure a government job, but ended up not getting it. Such “cash for jobs” schemes are relatively common in Iraq. 

Adel said internet providers in federal Iraq must lower their prices and invest in fiber optic cables such as those found in the Kurdistan Region. 

Other young Iraqis are capitalizing on the relative lack of development in certain sectors to create opportunities for themselves. For example, to address the shortage in quality English-language institutes in the country, Hardan al-Saray founded the Harden Centre in 2022 in Baghdad. They started off with just 10 English-language students, but now have around 250. He studied English in school but also improved his English skills speaking to people from around the world online when he was forced to stay home after a kidnapping attempt against his brothers in 2008. He now speaks the language fluently. 

Saray worked other jobs for five years in order to save up to start the institute. Before opening, he had to pay $5,000 to the Ministry of Education. 

But local authorities then shook him down for money. Such bribes are telling of a country that does not support youth entrepreneurship, according to Saray. 

“The laws are old and antiquated, and are here to control,” Saray told Al-Monitor. 

Iraq's economy is expected to continue an upward battle for the foreseeable future. The country is experiencing intense political division, including among the Shiite majority, and it remains to be seen what the Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein's trip to Washington last month will yield. The lack of opportunity in the country takes time to overcome, according to Saray.

“Millions like me try to find a job by themselves, but only a few fortunate people achieve it,” he said. “For young people to start a project in Iraq, patience is the key.”

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