Increasing joblessness and rising poverty is creating a humanitarian crisis among Ahwazi Arabs that threatens to lead to widespread unrest, according to activists and a growing number of politicians.
The unemployment crisis prompted one desperate Ahwazi Arab to set himself alight in the provincial governor's office last week, emulating Tunisian martyr Mohammad Bouazizi.
The official unemployment rate in "Khuzestan" province is 12 per cent, the second highest rate in the country. However, Sayed Sharif Hussaini, a member of parliament in the province, claims the rate is more than 25 per cent and has challenged the accuracy of official statistics. Youth unemployment is soaring with 30 per cent of 15-29 year olds without jobs, although the province's natural resources are a major source of wealth for the country.
Political failure to keep promises highlighted by MPs
Hussaini criticised the failure of government ministers to keep promises to resolve problems and for the discriminatory practices by managers towards local people. He highlighted two major problems: the preference for bringing non-local people from outside the province and the attitude of non-local management towards local people. An example of discriminatory practices was the tendency of oil and steel companies to use contractors from Tehran, using non-local labour, whenever there are big contracts on offer.
Meanwhile, Khalil Hayati Moghadam, a member of parliament for Mahshahr, told parliament that "according to official statistics, the rate of unemployment in Omidyeh and Maashour was 23 per cent despite having the biggest petrochemical plants in the country. He described the situation as a "crisis" and condemned management for sacking local staff from their jobs and filling the vacancies with people brought in from outside the province.
The crisis was also highlighted by provincial governor Sayed Jaafar Hejazi, who claimed that in spite of more than 700 billion tomans of investment the Ahwaz Oxyn Folad steel company had provided only 700 job opportunities to local people. Increasing poverty among Ahwazi Arabs is becoming a major political issue in the presidential election with candidates promising a range of measures to appeal to the Arab vote. There are, however, widespread doubts among Ahwazi Arabs.
Ahmadinejad's visit sparks protests and disbelief
In a visit to Ahwaz during the weekend, President Ahmadinejad pledged to redistribute 2 per cent of oil revenues back to the region in the form of funding for social development. However, over the past eight years his administration has consistently opposed legislation proposed by the region's members of parliament to redistribute 1.5 per cent of oil revenues back to the oil-producing, Arab-majority region.
Workers from local sugar refineries in Ahwaz City demonstrated against the president's visit to the region in protest against months of unpaid wages. The plants have been transferred to the ownership of banks due to insolvency and are refusing to release money for salaries. Meanwhile, in Abadan workers and pensioners in the oil industry staged protests against a government decision to give housing units that had been promised to them to the Revolutionary Guards and security forces.