Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Spatial Development Disparities in Iraq

Following the 2003 invasion, Iraq's urban nature has changed considerably. Post-war urban development, however, has not been kind to everyone

On 17 April 17 2009, Iraqi children looked out of their home’s window in the al-Dora neighbourhood of Baghdad. AFP PHOTO/AHMAD AL-RUBAYE

Dina M. Abdulrazzaq

Following the 2003 invasion, Iraq’s urban nature has changed considerably. Post-war urban development, however, has not been kind to everyone. This article will present an overview of inequalities in Iraqi spatial development and how they relate to social status. It will also explore how they affect the quality of life of residents.


Due to the neglect of spatial development in recent years and the absence of integrated development strategies in almost all of the country’s regions, Iraq is currently experiencing various issues brought on by spatial development inequalities between governorates.

Due to the concentration of assets in metropolitan regions and the high migration rates in these areas, slums have started to develop in big cities, most notably in the capital Baghdad. Higher employment opportunities and access to essential infrastructure services, healthcare and education have driven this trend. Local population spikes have resulted, putting additional pressure on services and the housing market. Cities were simply not prepared to house this number of people.

Since big cities attract most of the resources and talent, this has also caused small towns, villages and rural areas to suffer from a lack of human resources, essential services and suitable infrastructure.

This article focuses on the causes of these disparities in urban development in Iraq. It offers some solutions that could help improve the country’s spatial and economic circumstances.


Iraq is divided into three main regions: the northern region, represented by Kurdistan, in addition to Kirkuk; the central region, which includes Nineveh, Salah al-Din, Diyala and Anbar; and the southern region, which includes Baghdad and extends to Basra. Spatial inequalities are rampant across all three regions in Iraq.

Due to the evident concentration of economic and social development in a handful of cities, there has been an increase in migration toward these areas. As the high population concentrations are also the centres of economic growth, the city of Baghdad ranks first, followed by Mosul, Basra and Sulaymaniyah.

Despite Iraq’s economy depending mostly on oil production from the Basra governorate in the southern region and the Kirkuk governorate in the northern region, these two governorates are among the poorest in the country, as is evident in the disparity between Iraqi governorates in terms of per capita expenditure indicators.

The highest levels of expenditure, which are significantly above the national average, are found in Kurdistan. For many years, the central budget (and balance of payments) was almost entirely funded by oil income, which in turn encouraged a diminishing share of manufacturing and agriculture in GDP. As a result, the majority of the southern governorates, including those producing oil, and some governorates in the central region have expenditure levels below the national average.

On the other hand, the conflict and war in Iraq have significantly impacted welfare, directly through the loss of life and livelihoods and the displacement of people and indirectly through the destruction of infrastructure, which successively affected the industrial and agricultural sectors.

As a consequence, internal migration from Iraqi governorates to Baghdad happens for several reasons. The most important factor is security, followed by economic motives, such as increased employment opportunities and earnings in Baghdad.

In addition, the deteriorating infrastructure, a dearth of basic needs, as well as a lack of health and educational facilities in villages, rural areas and other Iraqi governorates all contribute to the migration of people toward Baghdad.

This article, therefore, focuses on the phenomenon of spatial development disparities between governorates due to the neglect of the spatial dimension and the absence of integrated development strategies in all regions of the country.

Secondary sources were used to compile the article’s data. In order to increase the accuracy of the information, the main analysis is carried out via research, analysis and comparisons of various books, scientific journals and government reports. This was supplemented with resources from non-government organisations related to the subject matter. Secondary analysis is based on publicly accessible data regarding the present state of affairs in Iraq and queries among its residents.

The drivers of Iraq's spatial development disparities

With an emphasis on spatial development’s two main axes, economic efficiency and social fairness, over the past 40 years, spatial development plans in Iraq have attempted to reduce the spatial disparity of development between different governorates and between urban and rural regions. However, reality and development indexes continue to highlight poverty rates and a spatial gap in development amongst governorates.


Violence and insecurity

Since the 1970s, Iraq’s path has been marked by different conflicts, starting with the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s and continuing with the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The latter, in particular, resulted in extensive sanctions that crippled the country and did not end until the US-led invasion in 2003.

The country’s middle and southern regions continued to experience suffering and poverty. This did not change even after 2003 when these areas should have seen an improvement due to the Iraqi government’s ability to focus its resources where they were most needed. The wide disparity in service delivery quality shows that the central government’s efforts to promote equality have not been successful.

Iraq’s experience with conflict, wars, sectarianism, terrorism and regional fragmentation did not end after 2003. The nation continued to experience numerous setbacks until 2014, when ISIS forces overran parts of the country, including Mosul, causing massive internal migration from the affected areas toward Baghdad and northern Iraq.

The country’s security situation consumes the government’s time and resources, preventing it from investing in reconstruction. Industry and agriculture are particularly affected since they are reliant on poor infrastructure, such as insufficient power and water networks. As a result, economic growth and significant development, which require robust core infrastructure, have been put on hold until a semblance of stability can be restored.


The spatial concentration of economic activities

Despite having been the primary emphasis of national development plans since the early 1970s, economic activity and population distribution have been spatially concentrated in a small number of cities and major metropolitan centres in Iraq. This means that there is a clear correlation between the concentration of economic activities and the volume of migration driven by the accumulation of investments in these areas.

Data on the area and population of Iraq’s governorates over the last ten years show that there is an imbalance between the land area of cities and their population size. Over two-thirds of the Iraqi population live in urban clusters. This is particularly clear in Baghdad, which makes up only 1 per cent of the country’s total area but is home to a quarter of its population.

Over time the population of urban areas has increased as a result of the continuing disparity in services and economic opportunities. This has put pressure on infrastructure, the housing market, healthcare and educational systems. It has led to the development of impoverished neighbourhoods in the capital that have become hubs for overpopulation, crime and social breakdown.


Poverty disparity among the population

According to the Standard of Living Index, poverty rates in Iraq’s rural regions reached 58 per cent in 2012, far higher than in cities and metropolitan centres, where poverty rates are around 17 per cent. The economic situation in rural areas has a significant influence on the high rates of internal migration.

These findings demonstrate that, in addition to the difference in poverty levels between urban and rural regions, there are large variations in poverty levels between governorates. According to 2012 statistics, the governorate of Anbar has the lowest percentage of poverty at 17 per cent, while Maysan has the highest level at 56 per cent. Poverty is also relatively high in the governorates of Dhi Qar, al-Qadisiyyah and Al-Muthanna.


Gender inequality in development

Women make up half of Iraq’s population, according to 2022 research records provided by KAPITA’s research department. Promoting equality and increasing women’s power in society, politics and the economy are important steps to achieving human well-being while also having a significant effect on the country’s economy.

For many years, however, Iraq has stood out for the unequal access men and women have to their political, economic and social rights. Gender indicators also demonstrate the disparity in education between men and women. Since having access to higher education is a primary enabler for women to engage in the workforce, politics and social work, this educational disparity weakens women’s political empowerment and economic engagement.

In Iraq, the percentage of illiteracy among men aged ten is 11.6 percent but rises to 21.6 per cent among women. Moreover, only three of the 25 available positions in the current Iraqi government are filled by female ministers. The same trend holds up in the economic sector, where women made up only 13.9 per cent of the workforce in 2018. The percentage is slightly higher in rural areas where more women are involved in agriculture.


The lack of equitable spatial development plans throughout the governorates has caused serious harm to the country. The current government, however, is unable to implement improvements because of security, political and economic instability, as well as weak institutions, poor oversight and a lack of regulations. All these factors have played a part in the widespread corruption that makes it challenging for equitable spatial development planning to materialise.

Therefore, the amount of development funds allocated to the different governorates in Iraq varies widely. Since the 1970–1974 plan, national development plans have repeatedly focused on development and investment projects in certain regions of the country, such as the capital. At the time, Baghdad received roughly 24 per cent of the total investment allocations, whereas Basra received around 15 per cent. Unfortunately, this dynamic still exists to some extent today.

Consequently, Iraq must act quickly to implement equitable economic and spatial development strategies across the country. The optimal way of doing so is by adequately distributing the development budget and offering opportunities for investing in projects in a way that supports economic justice.

In order to prevent further migration to urban areas, it is equally important to focus on basic service provision in villages and rural regions, particularly in terms of infrastructure such as water, sanitation and electricity, as well as services like education and healthcare.

Moreover, it, too, is essential to invest in the natural and human resources of villages and rural areas by increasing support for the agriculture sector and realising adequate connections to urban areas by a network of highways and roads.


Al-Shedidi, H. 2012. Spatial Development Disparities in Iraq by the proposed development measures and ways of facing it. Spatial Development Disparities in Iraq by the proposed development measuring and ways of facing it.

Merza, A. 2016. Disparities in Regional Incomes and Spending: Spatial economic interdependence in Iraq. Iraqi Economists Network Website.

Iraqi Ministry of Planning: Spatial Development 2012. governmental data.–%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AA%D9%86%D9%85%D9%8A%D8%A9%20%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D9%83%D8%A7%D9%86%D9%8A%D8%A9%207-11-2012.pdf

Iraq – The unfulfilled promise of oil and growth: Poverty, inclusion and welfare in Iraq, 2007-2012: Full report (English). Washington, D.C.: World Bank Group.

Minister of Planning, 2012. An analysis of Iraq’s population in 2012. Committee for National Population Policy. the United Nations Population Fund’s support.



UN-Habitat, Iraq Urban Issues.

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