Letter From - Spring 2006

Amman: The War Next Door

By Ingrid McDonald | March 1, 2006


Last November, after Iraqi suicide bombers killed 60 people in three Western hotels in Amman, Jordan, a survivor— the groom in a wedding being held in the Radisson ballroom—told a television reporter, “This is not Islam.” Indeed, until that evening, Jordan’s capital city was best known to the world as a safe haven wedged between Iraq and the West Bank.

Tightly bound by family and tribal networks, Amman feels much smaller than it is. Everyone here seems to have known one or more of the bombing victims, and, in the days that followed, newly printed pictures of King Abdullah II appeared on storefront windows and drivers adorned their cars with Jordanian flags.

The bombs complicate an already growing resentment against the large population of Iraqis who have relocated here in the aftermath of the Iraq war. Amman has become a booming hub for Iraqi reconstruction and the new home of the Iraqi business elite—so much so that Jordanians complain that the new wealth is inflating prices and increasing their cost of living. Meanwhile, shadowed by the trappings of affluence, war-weary Iraqi migrants who arrive with next to nothing scurry to make a meager living. In Deir Al Ghobar, the neighborhood where I have lived with my family for nearly three years, I see many signs of the new arrivals from Iraq, both rich and poor.

The new wealth is obvious. Vacant lots where sheep grazed when we first arrived from the United States have been filled with presumptuous- looking white stone apartment houses and fancy villas. Pounding jackhammers and churning cement mixers produce a constant din. On my early morning walks, I see Egyptian domestic workers in rubber boots washing expensive automobiles, cars ever more frequently marked with Iraqi plates.

Around the corner from my house, I pass the Australian Embassy, a converted apartment house surrounded by large concrete barriers poorly disguised as flower pots and guarded by bored policemen carrying AK-47s. Here I see the other new face of Amman in a regular gathering of Iraqi women in long black abayas. They stand patiently alongside their weathered-looking men, waiting to inquire about visas.

In the fall of 2003, when my husband and I decided to move to Amman with our two-year-old son, I was unsure what to expect. The opportunity to fulfill our long-held dream of living overseas and the chance for my husband to apply his telecommunications expertise to Jordan’s economic liberalization efforts outweighed our doubts and fears about the region’s political instability and impending war.

That winter, not long after we arrived, the buildup to war moved into high gear. Huddled around the TV in a rented house that didn’t yet feel like home, we watched Secretary of State Colin Powell make the case for war to the United Nations and the world. Life in Jordan went on hold. People voiced fears of a spike in gas prices, economic decline, and a flood of refugees. Jordanians delayed personal and business decisions. One cab driver told me he wished the United States would just “get it over with.”

Today, while sorting out how to compensate for the loss of cheap oil from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the Jordanian government is simultaneously dealing with the economic effects of being Iraq’s new gateway. In 2004, the Jordanian economy registered more than 7 percent growth, the greatest in 12 years, thanks in part to growing Iraqi investments.

And, despite the recent bombings, Amman remains the stopover of choice for those doing business in Iraq. The war-torn country’s reconstruction money flows through the cash registers of the expensive hotels and trendy restaurants where well-paid American contractors, private-security muscle men, and government officials rest on their way to or from Baghdad. At Cozmo, the modern, Western-style grocery store where I sometimes shop, the aisles are clogged with Americans, Brits, and Europeans. Many are here with the Red Cross, the United Nations, or other international organizations, running their programs in Iraq from afar or using Jordan as a base for training programs.

In very large numbers, the Iraqis are here too. Locals estimate that the Iraqi population of 300,000 before the war has now grown to 500,000 or more, with most people settling in Amman. These are huge numbers for a small country like Jordan, where the overall population of 5 million already includes 2-million-plus Palestinian refugees.

Right after the war, most Iraqis chose to stay in Iraq, waiting to see what would happen without Saddam. But as the security situation deteriorated, a steady flow of migrants began arriving in Amman. They still come to escape the bloodshed and instability, obtain visas to other countries, or just do business. Some families split up, fathers staying in Baghdad and sending their wives and children to Amman for shelter. Most say they are waiting for the situation in Iraq to calm down so they can go back home.

In the old downtown of Amman, Iraqi men sit in front of corner stores, populate the small, dirty public parks, and come and go from mosques. On the other side of town, conspicuously rich Iraqi women shop for designer clothes at Mecca Mall, dubbed the “Iraqi Embassy” by cynical Jordanians. As a non-Arabic speaker, I can’t distinguish among the accents, so it is not as easy for me to identify Iraqis. But my Jordanian friends say that as soon as an Iraqi opens his or her mouth—and sometimes even before—they know.

The older community of Iraqi political refugees, writers, and artists, those who arrived in the 1990s, now find themselves living with elements from the regime they fled. Saddam Hussein’s daughters live just around the corner from our house. Most of the new arrivals, however, are not famous. They are laborers, mechanics, engineers, and doctors, Sunni and Shia, all struggling to get by. Separate from this larger community, on a different track and in different parts of town, are the wealthy Iraqi business elite, a mix of old merchant families and upstart traders.

When I ask local Jordanians or transplanted Palestinians about the Iraqis coming into Amman, they think of the wealthy people first. They roll their eyes and complain that the cost of housing is going through the roof and the roads are becoming clogged with traffic. For many locals, Iraqis are now on a par with the people they condescendingly call Gulfies—wealthy Arabs from Persian Gulf countries who use Amman as their summer vacation land. Jordanians look down on them disdainfully, as if they were hillbillies who’d found gold.

The commonly held belief that “Iraqis are buying Amman” is a reaction to real and dramatic changes in the real-estate market. In the past year, real-estate prices have surged some 30 to 35 percent, and more like 50 to 100 percent in the upper-class neighborhoods. This hits home for me every few months when our landlord, a Jordanian who lives in Dubai, calls to not-so-subtly inquire again when it is that we plan to leave. He reminds us that our villa could be renting for twice what he’s charging under our lease, and he’s probably right.

While the Jordanians complain about the rising costs, the boom has created waves of benefit for local businesses, from landscapers to painters to utility companies and on and on. A woman who works in a furniture store says that the same Iraqi man comes in almost every night. He browses and buys, browses and buys. She often tires of attending to him, but he is the store’s best customer.

No one knows exactly how much money has come in from Iraq since the war, but many believe the amount to be as much as $10 billion, possibly more. One American who does development work in Jordan put it this way: “Look, the aid agencies [the U.S. Agency for International Development, the European Union, and all the rest] have been pumping one billion-plus dollars per year into Jordan’s economy for decades, but it has never made the kind of differences in the economy we are seeing now.”

Driving by enormous developments under construction, I can’t help but wonder where all of this money comes from. Aows, an Iraqi who does business-development work for a Western trade commission, says that after the war, a new group of Iraqi “war traders” popped up in Jordan. Some of the new traders came by money in illegitimate ways, he explains. Before the war, Saddam dispersed his wealth among loyalists and instructed them to fund an insurgency should he be deposed. At the onset of the war, many of these so-called loyalists— actually businessmen trying to keep a low profile by pleasing the regime—took the money and exiled themselves to Amman. The worst mistake the United States made, Aows says, was dismantling the Iraqi army and police. In the first six months after the invasion, people robbed banks, stole fortunes, and left the country. These people, too, set up shop in Amman.

Dr. Khaled, an Iraqi businessman and professor of economics, concurs with Aows’s assessment. Since the war, he says, Iraqis have crossed the border with boxes of cash. With banks tightening the screws on money laundering, many find real estate a safe and easy way to unload this money. Real-estate agents say Iraqis are routinely buying up houses and land for cash.

The new Iraqi war traders are well positioned to take advantage of the billions of dollars in U.S. reconstruction aid flowing into Iraq. They have the right relationships to get things done, and the companies they head are willing to bid on dangerous jobs that few others are interested in. Does this mean that the same people who worked for Saddam now work as subcontractors to Haliburton, the Washington Group, and Parsons?

Not directly. Mohammed, an Iraqi trader who has been in Amman since 1998, says that he and small-scale Iraqi traders like him never get contracts from “the big guys” because they could never meet the contracting requirements. Instead, the billion-dollar contractors subcontract with more well known international firms in the region based in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, or Turkey. In turn, these million-dollar contractors dole out $100,000 pieces to the little guys like Mohammed and other Iraqis based in Amman who can manage their relatives and employees back home by telephone, e-mail, and courier.

Mohammed’s trading company supplies Iraq with medicines, plastic pipes for water, and other industrial and construction supplies. He coordinates transit of the materials from third countries such as India, China, or Germany into Jordan’s port of Aqaba where they are loaded onto trucks and driven 800 miles to Baghdad. Businessmen like him stay in Amman to avoid being killed by insurgents for working with the Americans or being kidnapped by gangs smelling the opportunity for big ransoms.

Even with the recent bombings, traders feel safer in Amman than at home in Baghdad, where they would be forced to maintain a very low profile. With enough money they can even buy the rights of Jordanian citizenship. The Ministry of Interior grants residency cards to foreign investors who deposit $150,000 in the bank for a year’s time. Until recently, Iraqis who deposited at least $500,000 could also “purchase” a Jordanian passport for $20,000.

Dr. Khaled raises his voice and shakes a finger when he talks about the waste and corruption embedded in the reconstruction subcontracting food chain. Of these new Iraqi millionaires here in Amman, he says, 90 percent are illegitimate. They pay bribes for contracts, massively inflating prices, and getting paid for work never completed, he says, and tells the story of one Iraqi man who just a year ago was too poor to pay for his son’s funeral. Today the man owns a palace in West Amman.

Not all Iraqis arrive with boxes of cash, however. The majority, in fact, come with next to nothing. That was the case for a woman known as Umm Ali (which means mother of Ali), who I met at a local community center. Shortly after the war began, her village on the outskirts of Baghdad came under attack. After living for weeks with no water or electricity, she and her husband and two young sons managed to find a taxi to take them to Jordan. They spent $400, all of the money they had, on a ride that just a few weeks before would have cost only $10.

For Umm Ali and the many poor Iraqis like her, the struggle to make ends meet in Jordan is exacerbated by the economic boom triggered by their wealthy countrymen. Rents are soaring even in the poor neighborhoods. According to Caritas, the Catholic relief organization, Iraqi families that used to find decent places for less than the equivalent of $100 a month now settle for small, humid apartments that look more like storage spaces than human dwellings, or they share apartments with other families, each family occupying one room.

For Iraqis who don’t have the money to obtain residency or work permits, life in Jordan is uncertain. After their three-to-six-month visas run out, most stay on illegally. They are stuck in a stateless limbo, afraid to return to Iraq, unable to obtain visas to the West, and unwelcome in Jordan.

Neither the United Nations nor Jordan can accommodate the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis fleeing the war. The 15,000 Iraqis who have registered with the United Nations as “temporary asylum seekers” are in theory protected from deportation but they have no legal right to work in Jordan. Unlike officially recognized refugees (whose status the United Nations froze at the onset of the war), these individuals have no right to resettlement in a third country or to permanent local integration. Because the United Nations can do little to help them, most of the Iraqis who have relocated to Jordan don’t bother to register.

The Jordanian police have a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy when it comes to Iraqis residing here illegally. Iraqis tend to be arrested only if they are caught working without a permit or otherwise breaking the law. To survive, many find opportunities to work under the table despite the risks. Highly skilled carpenters, blacksmiths, and even engineers and doctors flood the labor market and, according to bitter Jordanians, drag down wages. Others work as gardeners, garbage collectors, or construction laborers, jobs that Jordanians are generally unwilling to do. These illegal workers are subject to abuse from employers, arrest, and even deportation. In Baghdad, Umm Ali’s husband worked in a restaurant at a five-star hotel, but in Jordan, with no work permit, he works on and off at a falafel stand. When he doesn’t get paid, he has no legal recourse.

In addition to such earnings, Iraqis rely heavily on support from family members who live abroad and from private charities. Caritas is overrun with requests for help from Iraqis knocking at the door of their offices in Amman. The charity recently attempted to set up a committee of wealthy Iraqis to help with fundraising to serve this population. So far, according to the staff person in charge, not a single wealthy Iraqi has responded to the call for help.

Umm Ali’s older son, who is five years old, will be ready to start school next year, but she worries about whether he will be accepted at the local government school. The laws governing the right of nonresidents to attend public schools have been swinging back and forth like a pendulum. Last August, the government made a rash decision to close government schools to Iraqi children. The decision was rapidly reversed, but some schools are still reluctant to enroll these children, and parents worry if all of them will again be barred.

The school policy is just one example of a broader wave of anti-Iraqi backlash hitting Amman. When I ask Jordanians about the Iraqis in their midst, they voice sentiments like these: The Iraqis make it harder for us because prices are going up. . . . Youth who want to get married say they can’t find apartments because the prices are too high. . . . Iraqis are taking all of the jobs. . . . Employers favor them because they can have them for less pay. . . . We had a safe, secure Jordan, but crime is rising. Now there is prostitution, robbery, and theft.

Resentment is strong and widespread. A friend of mine heard one upper-class Jordanian woman complain that she, “a land-owning true Jordanian” was “treated like a dirty Iraqi” when she went to the U.S. Embassy to obtain a visa. Poor Jordanians are also complaining. They accuse Iraqis of gobbling up all of the aid from charity groups and leaving them out in the cold. “Iraqis are tough people,” one friend said, “tough people from a tough nation. And we pity them, but we cannot handle these demographic changes.”

The government has responded to public opinion with protectionist laws. Iraqis now can purchase land or property only in certain areas of the country. When hiring new professors, public universities must now give priority to Jordanians who hold doctorates. And late last year, the labor minister unveiled a plan to double or triple foreigners’ work-permit fees and use these funds to support the training of Jordanian workers and to subsidize their salaries.

As for the Iraqis, many feel bitter. “There is no Arab brotherhood,” says the Iraqi trader Mohammed, with a sigh. “Jordanians like Saddam Hussein. I don’t know why but they do, maybe because the king is Sunni. They look at any Iraqis who come here with money as traitors and thieves.” Umm Ali says she felt welcomed by her neighbors when she first came to Jordan in 2003. “But now,” she says, “I feel discriminated against because I am Shia. So in the mosque sometimes I pray like a Sunni (hands folded together) instead of a Shia (hands down). I hope that God will forgive me for this.” Aows, the business-development professional, finds it telling that there is little to no intermarriage between Iraqis and Jordanians these days, “and 80 percent of what does happen is for business reasons or visas.” Aows then quotes an Arabic proverb from the Koran: “You will know someone better from marriage, money, or travel.”

If that’s the case, it seems the Iraqis and Jordanians coexisting in Amman don’t like what they found out. For now, the boxes of Iraqi cash are creating more jealous resentment than prosperity, and the poor—Iraqis and Jordanians alike—are left out.

After the hotel bombings, the government mounted an ad campaign calling for national unity. Large colorful signs posed at major traffic circles and intersections bear the motto WE ARE ALL JORDAN. But who are “we”? Does “all” include the Iraqis in Jordan’s midst, or will the backlash intensify?

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