BASRA, Iraq (AP) – It’s almost dawn, and Zainab Amjad has been up all night working on an oil rig in southern Iraq. She lowers a sensor into the black depths of a well until sonar waves detect the presence of crude oil burning the country’s economy.
Elsewhere in the oil-rich province of Basra, Ayat Rawthan oversees the assembly of large drill pipes. These will be drilled into the Earth and send important data about rock formations to screens located a few meters away that she will decipher.
The women, both 24, are just a handful who have avoided the sad office jobs typically handed over to female oil engineers in Iraq. Instead, they chose to become pioneers in the country̵
They are part of a new generation of talented Iraqi women testing the boundaries of their conservative society. Their determination to find jobs in a historically male-dominated industry is a striking example of the way a growing youth population finds itself increasingly at odds with deeply rooted and conservative tribal traditions prevalent in Iraq’s southern oil heart region.
The hours Amjad and Rawthan spend in the oil fields are long and the weather is forgiving. They are often asked what – as women – they do there.
“They tell me the field environment that only men can tolerate,” said Amjad, who spends six weeks at a time at the drilling site. “If I gave up, I would prove them right.”
Iraq’s fortunes, both economic and political, tend to ebb and flow with the oil markets. Oil sales make up 90% of the state’s revenue – and the vast majority of crude oil comes from the south. A price collapse is leading to an economic crisis; a boom fills the treasury. A healthy economy provides a measure of stability, while instability has often undermined the strength of the oil sector. Decades of wars, civil unrest and invasion have stopped production.
After low oil prices dragged down by the coronavirus pandemic and international disputes, Iraq is showing signs of improvement, with exports from January reaching 2,868 million barrels a day to $ 53 per barrel. Barrel, according to statistics from the Ministry of Petroleum.
For most Iraqis, the industry can be summed up by these figures, but Amjad and Rawthan have a more detailed view. Each well offers a set of challenges; some required more pressure to pump, others were filled with toxic gas. “Every field feels like going to a new country,” Amjad said.
Given the industry’s oversized importance to the economy, petrochemical programs in the country’s engineering schools are reserved for students with the highest grades. Both women were in the top 5% of their graduate class at Basra University in 2018.
At school, they were amazed by drilling. For them, it was a new world with its own language: “spudding” had to start drilling operations, a “Christmas tree” was the top of a wellhead, and “dope” just meant fat.
Every working day throws them deep into the mysterious conditions beneath the earth’s crust, where they use tools to look at formations of minerals and mud until the precious oil is found. “Like throwing a rock into the water and studying ripples,” Rawthan explained.
To work in the field, Amjad, the daughter of two doctors, knew she had to land a job with an international oil company – and to do so, she had to stand out. State-run enterprises were a dead end; there she would be banished to office work.
“In my spare time, on my vacations, free days, I ordered training and signed up for any program I could,” Amjad said.
When China’s CPECC came looking for new hires, she was the obvious choice. Later, when Texas-based Schlumberger was looking for wiring engineers, she jumped at the chance. The job requires her to determine how much oil can be extracted from a given well. She passed one difficult exam after another to get to the final interview.
When asked if she was sure she could do the job, she said, “Hire me, be careful.”
Over the course of two months, she swapped her green hard hat for a shiny white, signifying her status as a mentor, no longer a trainee – a month faster than typical.
Rawthan also knew she had to work extra hard to be successful. Once, when her team had to perform a rare “sidetrack” – by drilling another bore next to the original – she remained awake all night.
“I did not sleep for 24 hours, I wanted to understand the whole process, all the tools from start to finish,” she said.
Rawthan now also works for Schlumberger, where she collects data from wells used to determine the drilling path later. She wants to master the drilling, and the company is a world leader in service.
Relatives, friends and even teachers were discouraging: What about the hard physical work? The scorching Basra heat? Do you live on the rig for several months at a time? And the desert scorpions roaming the reservoirs at night?
“Many times my professors and peers laughed, ‘We need to see you out there,’ and told me I would not make it,” Rawthan said. “But this only pushed me harder.”
However, their parents were supportive. Rawthan’s mother is a civil engineer and her father, the captain of an oil tanker that often spent months at sea.
“They understand why this is my passion,” she said. She hopes to help create a union to bring like-minded Iraqi female engineers together. For now no one exists.
The work is not without danger. Protests outside oil fields led by angry local tribes and the unemployed can disrupt work and sometimes escalate into violence against oil workers. Faced every day with flares that point to Iraq’s blatant oil wealth, others reject state corruption, poor service and unemployment.
But women are willing to take on these difficulties. Amjad hardly has time to even consider them: It was at. 23, and she needed to get back to work.
“Drilling never stops,” she said.