Following their evacuation nearly a month earlier that was described as a precautionary measure, 22 foreign employees of oil giant Exxon Mobil returned to Iraq’s southern West Qurna 1 oilfield on Saturday, with more expected to follow on Sunday.
The evacuations, announced on May 18, followed an order by the US State Department for the departure of non-emergency US government employees from its embassy in Baghdad and consulate-general in Erbil, as well as the suspension of normal visa services.
Following the oil company’s staff withdrawal, Iraqi Oil Minister Thamer Ghadhban claimed the decision had nothing to do with security or threats but was motivated by “political reasons,” and labeled it “unacceptable and unjustified.”
The events unfolded against the backdrop of heightened tensions between the US and Iran that have been mounting since US President Donald Trump withdrew from an international Iran nuclear agreement and re-imposed sanctions on Tehran last year.
On Thursday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Iran for attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday, despite Tehran’s repeated denials, fueling fears of a confrontation in the vital oil shipping corridor.
The decision to return the foreign Exxon employees came in the final days of May, after the Iraqi government agreed to the company’s request to add additional security at the employees’ work and residential areas, officials previously told Reuters.
Iraqi economic analyst Hadee Jalo Maree told Kurdistan 24, “Iraq’s economy is fragile and [the nation] needs to rebuild its economic infrastructure. Creating a safe environment for foreign staff is a necessity that the Iraqi Ministry of Oil must see to.”
He added that doing so would “build a solid base for future cooperation and increase credibility with international investment companies, positively impacting the Iraqi economy.”
Mayada Najar, an Iraqi lawmaker and member of parliament’s Economic and Investment Committee, told Kurdistan 24 that Iraq’s financial system is “in the process of rehabilitation and needs to reestablish trust with investment companies,” in a way that emphasizes the national interest as a priority.
Iraq has one of the world’s largest oil reserves and is the second-largest oil producer in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).