[Published here March 29, 2021]
Suitcases of spreadsheets are wheeled into her office, as infuriated MPs storm out. Her unmistakeable voice booms down the finance ministry hallways.
Meet Taif al-Sami, Iraq’s budget baroness.
Detractors say she’s an old-fashioned micromanager, while fans praise her as a bulwark against pervasive state corruption in Iraq — and an independent, vocal woman in a male-dominated bureaucracy.
But they agree that the 57-year-old head of the ministry’s budget department knows her stuff.
“She stuck out because she filled a gap. She has good administrative abilities and very good financial knowledge,” Finance Minister Ali Allawi told AFP.
Sami has the last word on individual budget disbursements, meaning parliamentarians and ministry officials need her to green-light funds for projects, promotions or other payments.
She often spots irregularities, including an attempt by a government ministry in 2018 to score a bigger annual budget by artificially increasing its employees’ pay grades and introducing “ghost employees” — workers that exist on the payroll but not in real life.
“It would have cost the Iraqi state billions of dinars,” said Sami, or at least hundreds of thousands of US dollars out of a $100-billion budget.
It’s a classic graft scheme in Iraq: that same year, parliament discovered that some $450 billion in public funds had been embezzled since 2003, including in similar ghost employee schemes.
“She has a major role in stopping budget corruption,” said a top Iraqi official who worked with Sami.
“The country would have disintegrated without her,” said the official, who did not want to be named.
– A living archive –
At the ministry, her multi-tasking is admired.
“Her left eye can read a document while her right eye works on something else,” one employee told AFP.
“With one look, she can tell you if a request is legal or not.”
Managing the state budget, however, was not what Sami dreamed of doing when she graduated from Baghdad University.
She had wanted to become a diplomat.
Instead, under the former socialist system, she was assigned to the finance ministry’s budget office, where she has remained ever since.
Throughout Iraq’s 1980-1988 war with Iran, international sanctions following Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the 2003 US-led invasion and the bloody aftermath, Sami worked her way up to heading the office.
“The vast majority of our team was run by women then, because the men were going to war,” she recalled.
By 6:30 a.m., she is in the office, usually dressed in dark colours with a black veil wrapped tight around her head.
She answered AFP’s questions between signing stacks of paper and responding to text messages on budget protocols.
When an assistant told Sami that a prominent MP was in the waiting room, she replied: “Tell him I’m gone for today.”
Sami heads home at around 5:00 p.m. to eat, pray and then keep working.
“Sleep? I wish I could sleep even four hours!” she said. “This brain keeps working, thinking of paperwork to do.”
– ‘Honey, you don’t understand’ –
Sami is regularly criticised in Iraqi media as the “secret hand” behind hiring freezes and other unpopular austerity measures.
“As if the budget is in my pocket!” she scoffed.
This “unbearable pressure (is) because I’m a woman and I don’t belong to a political party,” she added.
Her independence comes at a cost, she said, and however unpopular her decisions may be, she always stands her ground.
She said that she once requested well-connected finance ministry couriers be changed after finding out they were only sending correspondence if they received a bribe.
Within hours, men in SUVs with tinted windows surrounded her home, demanding the couriers be reinstated.
“Another time, I refused a request from a provincial official and the person involved threatened to drag me and throw me out the window,” Sami recalled.
“If I belonged to a party, I’d be untouchable.”
Her directness is somewhat legendary.
The official who worked with her said she once interrupted Iraq’s former premier Adel Abdel Mahdi during a cabinet meeting on the budget, telling him: “Honey, you don’t understand.”
“She shouts, ‘I don’t have money!’ to everyone who comes into her office. They’re all afraid of her,” said the official.
Explaining Iraq’s budgetary minutiae to AFP, Sami grew agitated, speaking louder and faster as she slammed her hand on the desk.
“They say I’m loud, aggressive. No, this is just how I talk. I get excited when I explain!” she said.
Critics accuse her of procuring political cover by doing small accounting “favours”, though nothing illegal.
Others complain that she is a relic of a paper-pushing bureaucracy that prevents Iraq from modernising to an electronic financing system.
But even they acknowledge her longevity.
“Allah will die and Taif al-Sami will still be doing her job in the finance ministry,” one said.