Iraq's lasting success will be measured in barrels per day

Less than two years ago, Iraq launched one of the largest oil field auctions in the history of the petroleum industry. Amid red carpets and television cameras, top executives from the world's major energy giants - from Beijing to Houston, from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur - flew to Baghdad to take their seats at the live event, hoping to win a concession. On offer were some of the richest and potentially most fertile fields in the world, in a country that could one day emerge as the largest reserves holder in the world.

When the sealed envelopes were opened by the then oil minister Dr Hussein al Shahristani live on state TV, the winners were mostly Asian and European firms. Iraqi officials proclaimed wildly ambitious oil production targets - 12 million barrels per day by the year 2016, surpassing even Saudi Arabia as the world's largest producer.

They also demonstrated negotiating prowess, squeezing the energy majors into less favourable technical service agreements and low per barrel rates.

A who's who of energy giants from Royal Dutch Shell to BP to Exxon Mobil, as well as emerging Asian and Russian giants such as Petronas (Malaysia), CNPC (China), and Lukoil (Russia), entered the Iraqi oil arena. Iraqi officials thumped their chests, predicting hundreds of billions of dollars would soon flow into Iraqi coffers every year, tripling, even quadrupling the size of Iraq's economy in less than a decade.

That December day provided a moment of hope for a nation battered by years of debilitating sanctions, Saddam-era mismanagement and political violence and three devastating wars in three decades, including a raging insurgency and near civil war in the aftermath of the 2003 US invasion.

Today, results are trickling in. Oil production has ticked up to 2.7 million barrels per day, up from 2.4 million in 2009. The International Energy Agency, meanwhile, estimates Iraq could produce about 3.7 million barrels per day by 2015.

Though Iraq will fall far short of its ambitious (some might say unrealistic) target of 12 million barrels by 2016, even if they made it halfway there by the end of this decade it would represent a significant achievement.

This does not even include production in the semiautonomous Kurdish north, which has hit nearly 200,000 daily barrels, according to the Iraq Oil Report news service. This could reach one million within four years.

The question on many Iraqi minds, however, is this: will Iraq's growing oil wealth provide a foundation for achieving the country's massively unrealised potential?

While some analysts still trot out the fashionable "oil curse" argument, suggesting that oil wealth actually slows development and promotes corruption, this thesis is too trite.

Oil wealth does not inherently promote corruption, uneven growth and mismanagement. The more serious ailment is the "weak institutions curse".

Iraq has shown many signs of this affliction. Transparency International, the global corruption watchdog, ranks Iraq among the most corrupt places to do business on earth. The World Bank's annual Doing Business Index, which tracks the ease of doing business in countries around the world, ranks Iraq number 166 - out of 183 countries - behind Equatorial Guinea and Angola, and just ahead of Afghanistan and Cameroon.

And yesterday, Iraq's parliament speaker told al Jazeera that some US$18.7 billion (Dh68.6billion) of Iraqi reconstruction funds - airlifted from the United States for distribution for reconstruction projects - has largely gone missing.

Will Iraq become a kleptocratic oil state that offers the veneer of growth, but fails to diversify its economy and to advance its citizens' educational development while developing a political culture of oil-driven patronage? Or will it use oil revenues to build an investment fund for future generations, dramatically expand infrastructure and education spending, offer incentives to non-oil manufacturers and create a private-sector-friendly environment that can unleash the talents of Iraqis and attract foreign investment?

For ordinary Iraqis in central and southern Iraq suffering from routine electricity blackouts, high rates of unemployment and rampant corruption, their own version of the Arab Spring protests asked less exalted questions: why are there no jobs? No electricity? No government transparency?

Few countries can afford the "weak institutions curse", especially Iraq, because it is also afflicted with the "insecurity curse". With some 95 per cent of its revenues coming from oil exports, Iraq can hardly afford a serious insurgency or a robust terror threat that could halt production or exports with a single bomb. Over the past few months, al Qa'eda in Iraq has stepped up its attacks on oil refineries and export hubs.

While purple fingers and hotly contested Iraqi elections capture the headlines, bread and butter items like electricity supply animate ordinary Iraqis.

One of the reasons the semi-autonomous Kurdish north is seen as a success is its ability to perform that most basic of government functions: keeping the lights on. Through private sector partnerships, the Kurdish north went from three hours of electricity in 2003 to some 20 hours a day today.

For 2011, oil revenues have brought in some $34.1 billion to the Iraqi state, according to the Iraq Oil Report. This is no small sum. Such a windfall could be a launching pad for growth and prosperity - or simply a patronage pie to be exploited by politicians.

At critical moments in a nation's history, they make choices. Those choices - more than external factors or foreign conspiracies - determine their fate. This moment has come for Iraq.

Afshin Molavi is a senior fellow and co-director of the World Economy Roundtable of the New America Foundation, a non-partisan Washington think tank.