Building Relationships With a Marginalized Community in Iraq

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A consortium of international and national Iraqi oil and gas companies took operatorship of the Qarmat Ali water-treatment plant, which is critical for oil production, in southern Iraq in 2013. Because of community protests, operations shut down for 6 months as the consortium strived to find the best way to work with the community. This paper explores how the consortium achieved success through engagement and by responding to community expectations for social investment while addressing the social effects of operations.


The Rumaila oil field in southern Iraq southwest of Basra is the country’s largest producing oil field, accounting for more than 40% of Iraq’s budget revenues. Since 2009, Iraq’s state-owned South Oil Company has engaged an international consortium of oil and gas companies together with the State Oil Marketing Organization of Iraq through a technical service contract to operate and modernize the oil field.

For the Rumaila oil field to continue producing 1.4 million BOPD, the consortium needs to inject more than 2 million BWPD by 2025. In 2013, the consortium began the refurbishment and expansion of the Qarmat Ali industrial water-treatment plant, a critical facility for injecting industrial water into the Rumaila oil field and thereby maintaining production.

From the start, a historically marginalized adjacent community, accustomed to using force to raise concerns, continued to use force to react to construction work at Qarmat Ali. Construction was interrupted frequently by stand-downs, gunfire, rock throwing, violence, and intimidation. After months of strained community relations, construction was shut down for 6 months. With government representatives lacking community support and local security forces providing inadequate protection, management considered abandoning refurbishment and expansion work.


To support the information-gathering process and begin the development of a new community-relations plan, the consortium commissioned a nongovernmental organization to gather data on baseline conditions in Qarmat Ali, undertaking 500 household interviews to provide a representative and diverse perspective on the thoughts, opinions, and recommendations of the community.

The AMAR International Charitable Foundation was selected to spearhead a study because of its 20-year legacy of supporting vulnerable populations in southern Iraq and reliance on trained local staff to provide an understanding of the local context and needs of the community.

On the first day of the study, in-­country staff were threatened with firearms. It is a testament to their professionalism and expertise that they were able to move past this barrier and sit down with and start listening to the community. This initial step fostered respect and goodwill and allowed re-engagement to start. This study identified a number of challenges as possible conflict triggers:

  • Qarmat Ali is an impoverished fence-line community of 5,226 people, made up of a wide range of tribes displaced by the draining of the Iraqi marshes in the 1990s. Given their experience of resettlement and insecurities of land ownership, community members felt wary of all outsiders.
  • Basic household conditions are extremely poor, made worse by social marginalization. The community survey found some of the lowest levels in the region for literacy (38%), employment (21%), and access to potable water (17%).
  • Weapons are commonplace in the community, and any incident can become dangerous quickly.


Having assessed the local context, the consortium’s primary goal was to respond to community expectations for social investment while addressing the social effects of operations and avoiding past problems arising from violence and threats.

Following numerous discussions with the Iraqi minister of oil and the governor of Basra, a community committee was established with representatives from the government, civil society, and the consortium to identify the challenges facing local people and address expectations as to what benefits realistically could be delivered to the community.

In October 2014, following weeks of intensive negotiations, the consortium brokered an agreement with the local sheikhs, allowing the consortium to return to work. The consortium’s first commitment was to facilitate a large stakeholder conference with local sheikhs and council members to build relationships and allow local leaders to share their vision of development.


While other oil fields in southern Iraq have struggled to implement social-­investment projects and regularly face demonstrations, not a single day of work at Qarmat Ali has been lost to community disruptions since the first community committee meeting.

The community committee has identified and delivered a range of community projects including healthcare, education, potable water, road infrastructure, and gender equality. Highlights of the partnership’s contributions to community-driven development include

  • Rehabilitating 3.7 km of road to Qarmat Ali, providing a greatly improved transport link, cutting journey times, and reducing road traffic accidents
  • Supporting the provision of quality healthcare with construction of a health clinic for a 10,000-person catchment and new mother and child health services
  • Empowering women as community health advocates to deliver health messaging and influence health-seeking behavior through more than 40,000 household visits
  • Investing in water infrastructure to improve access to safe water for 1,000 households, which previously spent up to 50% of their income on potable water
  • Managing a women’s center for training and technical expertise for more than 300 women, creating income through women-entrepreneur crafts and other livelihoods
  • Training for literacy and vocation skills and work placements for 43 unemployed community members

Case Studies

To contribute to rebuilding trust and to demonstrate how it could improve lives if the parties worked constructively, the community committee initially identified a quick-impact project to refurbish local schools.

The project provided a way to open doors and engage with the community, but, in the medium term, the aim was to develop strategic, long-term, social-­investment projects that aligned business objectives with government priorities and community needs.

Case Study 1: Road Infrastructure. A strategic issue for the business was road safety. The community has long been affected by the poor condition of their main access road shared with the industrial water-treatment plant. With road accidents being the main cause of death within the oil and gas industry and one of the more significant causes of in­juries and fatalities among members of the public worldwide, in 2014, a road infrastructure project was implemented to help share the road safely with the community.

Knowing that a new road was a strong wish of local residents, the community committee agreed on the project with local sheikhs and assisted with the acquisition of permits and permissions for the work from government departments.

The 3.7-km road was completed in just 3 months, minimizing the disruption to local residents caused by construction dust and diversions.

The success of the community committee in promoting community development alongside business objectives was especially evident at the road-opening ceremony where provincial government and local council representatives, local sheikhs, community members, and the consortium were all in attendance.

Case Study 2: Gender Equality. A strategic issue for the business was the potential effect of latent conflict on operations, with large groups of unemployed youth with nothing to do. Women were identified as one stakeholder group able to influence youth behavior positively. In 2015, a gender-equality project was implemented that addressed the challenge that women experience fewer benefits from oilfield operations than men.

A community center for women was set up and has trained 336 women in subjects including basic literacy, sewing, handicrafts, and hairdressing. Female heads of households, widows, and women living in poverty were targeted. Business skills combined with free childcare enabled many marginalized women to set up their own businesses.

Twenty women’s volunteers, selected from low-income families, were also trained as community health advocates, making weekly household visits in Qarmat Ali to promote healthier lifestyles and build trust in local health services. To date, these volunteers have made 41,600 visits.

Challenges and Innovation

The consortium, with its strong commitment to adhere to international good practice to create a successful strategic social-investment portfolio, faced a number of challenges:

  • The consortium did not have a secure budget for projects, with all expenditure needing to be approved by the state-owned South Oil Company.
  • The business case for strategic social investment was not always clear, with the community tending to focus its needs on infrastructural projects.
  • The fragmented tribal nature of the community led to parochial requests that would only have benefited specific sections and not the community as a whole.
  • Given the seniority of committee members on the community committee, they had other commitments and responsibilities that they naturally had to deal with in addition to their assistance and support for this work.
  • A clear exit strategy for each project, to ensure that positive effects could be sustained, was not always evident with limited government capacity and budgets.

The consortium’s solution to these challenges was to create a sustainable development partnership with one of the more marginalized communities in Iraq, which had a transformative effect on operator/community relations and community well-being. The community committee, with representatives from the government, civil society, and the consortium, embedded creativity and originality into the partnership by

  • Supporting a multistakeholder process for the community to get involved in local development discussions
  • Building a stronger cooperative relationship between the government and community, promoting the legitimacy of government by aligning government priorities with local needs
  • Avoiding intracommunity jealousy or fragmentation by bringing all community stakeholders to the table for local development dialogue
  • Helping the community distinguish between local development issues and those related to operations and providing a means to resolve grievances
  • Ensuring a solid agreement on the roles and responsibilities of each partner for each community project before budget approval was sought
  • Involving the South Oil Company in the partnership and in all aspects of decision making to ensure a secure budget for community projects
  • Enabling the process to be community and government driven, while ensuring that oversight for community projects remains with the consortium

Business Outcomes

Since the agreement, partners have trusted each other to deliver on respective obligations, resulting in the following clear, positive business outcomes:

  • USD 5.44 million of community development projects were identified and implemented in line with government priorities.
  • No significant community disturbances and not one day of work stoppage occurred at the industrial water-treatment plant.
  • Because of increased industrial water injection, oil production in northern Rumaila has increased from 500,000 to more than 700,000 B/D.
This article, written by Special Publications Editor Adam Wilson, contains highlights of paper SPE 183110, “To the Edge and Back: Building Relationships With a Marginalized Community in Iraq,” by Ilya Bourtman, BP; Hassan Al-Mudhaffar, Christopher Boyd, and Brendhan Skerritt, Rumaila Operating Organization; and Nicholas Abrahams, SPE, Social Risk Strategy, prepared for the 2016 Abu Dhabi International Petroleum Exhibition and Conference, Abu Dhabi, 7–10 November. The paper has not been peer reviewed.

Building Relationships With a Marginalized Community in Iraq

01 August 2017

Volume: 69 | Issue: 8


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