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Once an Arab model, Baghdad now world’s worst city

Iraqi men inspect diesel generators, which are often bought by individuals to supply electricity to their homes due to frequent power cuts, at their shop in the capital Baghdad on March 19, 2014. (AFP PHOTO/ALI AL-SAADI)

BAGHDAD: As recently as the 1970s, Baghdad was lauded as a model city in the Arab world. But now, after decades of seemingly endless conflict, it is the world’s worst city.

That is, at least, according to the latest survey by the Mercer consulting group, which when assessing quality of life across 239 cities, measuring factors including political stability, crime and pollution, placed Baghdad last.

The Iraqi capital was lumped with Bangui in the conflict-hit Central African Republic and the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, the latest confirmation of the 1,250-year-old city’s fall from grace as a global intellectual, economic and political center.

Residents of Baghdad contend with near-daily attacks, a lack of electricity and clean water, poor sewerage and drainage systems, rampant corruption, regular gridlock, high unemployment and a myriad other problems.

“We live in military barracks,” complained Hamid al-Daraji, a paper salesman, referring to the ubiquitous checkpoints, concrete blast walls and security forces peppered throughout the city.

“The rich and the poor share the same suffering,” the 48-year-old continued. “The rich might be subjected at any moment to an explosion, a kidnapping, or a killing, just like the poor.

“Our lives are ones where we face death at any moment.”

It was not always so for Baghdad.

Construction of the city on the Tigris River first began in 762 A.D. during the rule of Abbasid Caliph Abu Jaafar al-Mansour, and it has played a pivotal role in Arab and Islamic society ever since.

In the 20th century, Baghdad was held up as a gleaming example of a modern Arab city with some of the region’s best universities and museums, a highly educated elite, a vibrant cultural scene and top-notch health care.

“Baghdad represented the economic center of the Abbasid state,” noted Issam al-Faili, a professor of political history at the city’s Mustansiriyah University, an institution which traces its own history back nearly 800 years.

“It used to be a capital of the world,” Faili said, “but today, it has become one of the world’s most miserable cities.”

In February alone, 57 violent incidents struck the Iraqi capital, including 31 car bombs.

Massive concrete walls, designed to withstand the impact of explosions, still divide up confessionally mixed neighborhoods, while the government sits in the heavily fortified Green Zone, which is also home to parliament and the U.S. and British embassies, access to which is difficult for ordinary Iraqis.

Some are working to clean up the city and beautify it, but even they admit the uphill task facing them.

“I am actually hurt that Baghdad ranked among the worst cities in the world,” said Amir al-Chalabi, head of the Humanitarian Construction Organization, an NGO which runs civic campaigns aimed at improving the city’s services.

“It has become deserted, and it suffers from instability. At night, it turns into a ghost town because of the lack of lighting.”

Messes of electrical wires run along neighborhood streets, as privately operated communal generators work to make up for the shortfall in provision from the national grid, albeit at a price.

Poor drainage means that even moderate levels of rainfall during the winter lead to flooding, as pools form on the city’s potholed streets, while scorching summer heat forces the government to regularly declare national holidays.

Economic growth nationwide is strong, thanks to healthy oil production, but because the industry is not labor-intensive, it has not made a major dent in unemployment, including in the capital.

“Baghdad’s problems cannot be counted,” said Daraji, the paper seller. “The situation in Baghdad is sad. Sometimes it makes us cry – beautiful Baghdad is today in ruins.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 22, 2014, on page 12.

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Summary

As recently as the 1970s, Baghdad was lauded as a model city in the Arab world. But now, after decades of seemingly endless conflict, it is the world's worst city.

That is, at least, according to the latest survey by the Mercer consulting group, which when assessing quality of life across 239 cities, measuring factors including political stability, crime and pollution, placed Baghdad last.

Residents of Baghdad contend with near-daily attacks, a lack of electricity and clean water, poor sewerage and drainage systems, rampant corruption, regular gridlock, high unemployment and a myriad other problems.

In the 20th century, Baghdad was held up as a gleaming example of a modern Arab city with some of the region's best universities and museums, a highly educated elite, a vibrant cultural scene and top-notch health care.


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