AP Interview: Iraq oil minister says gas sector a priority

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CORRECTS SPELLING TO ISMAIL FROM ISMAEL - Ihsan Abdul-Jabbar Ismail, Iraq Oil minister speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, June 11, 2021. Iraq's oil sector is rebounding after a catastrophic year triggered by the coronavirus pandemic with key investment projects on the horizon, but the country's oil minister warned an enduring bureaucratic culture of fear threatens to stand in the way. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)

BAGHDAD – Iraq’s oil sector is rebounding after a catastrophic year triggered by the coronavirus pandemic, with key investment projects on the horizon, Iraq's oil minister said Friday. But he also warned that an enduring bureaucratic culture of fear threatens to stand in the way.

Iraq is currently trading oil at $68 per barrel, close to the approximately $76 needed for the state to operate without reliance on the central bank to meet government expenditures.

Oil Minister Ihsan Abdul-Jabbar Ismail took over the unenviable job of supervising Iraq’s most vital industry at the height of an oil price crash that slashed oil revenues by more than half last year. Since then, he has had to balance domestic demands for more revenue to fund state coffers and pressure from OPEC to keep exports low to stabilize the global oil market.

With the sector rebounding, Ismail told The Associated Press, he can now focus on other priorities. In the interview, he offered a rare glimpse into the inner-workings of the country’s most significant ministry — Iraq’s oil industry is responsible for 90% of state revenues.

He said cutthroat Iraqi politics and corruption fears often derailed critical investment projects during his tenure and those of his predecessors — a source of long-term frustration for international companies working in Iraq.

“In the Ministry of Oil, the big mistake, the big challenge are the delays in decision-making or no decision-making at all," he said, attributing indecisiveness to fears of political reprisal from groups or powerful lawmakers whose interests are not served.

He described what he said was a warped work culture where allegations of corruption are used as tools by political players to get their way. He alleged that the mere possibility is often enough to keep high-ranking officials in ministry from signing off on important projects.

“This is the culture: To stay away from any case, to stay away from inspectors, to say ‘let us not do it,’” he added. “I think this is the corruption that slows the economy.”