Not for the first time, stable, peaceful Jordan is serving as a haven for refugees from a strife-torn neighbour, its streets filling with Iraqis of every stripe, from big-spending members of Saddam Hussein’s ousted ruling class to impoverished street vendors and prostitutes.
While some residents of the hilltop, sand-coloured capital are complaining, the government is happy with an influx of Iraqi cash to offset its $7 billion foreign debt.
Real estate prices have at least doubled as Iraqis with satchels full of cash buy apartments and villas by the fistful.
Former members of Saddam’s Baath Party climb out of long, black sedans and sidle into the fanciest restaurants.
Russian women serve drinks to Iraqi truck drivers crowding belly-dancing joints before making the dangerous journey back to Baghdad.
Study in contrast
Pausing from feeding her business cards through car windows at a street corner, a 28-year-old prostitute named Siham delivers a lesson in microeconomics.
Stable, peaceful Jordan provides
“My business in Iraq was bad. People were barely able to make ends meet there. Here, I’m earning at least $200 a day,” said Siham, a lanky, jeans-clad woman who came from the northern Iraqi city of Mosul a year ago.
“My clients are Iraqi men,” she said.
In contrast is Sajida Abdul-Kadhim, 48, swathed in black and sitting cross-legged among rotting vegetables in a market, selling cheap cigarettes and lighters. She left six children in Baghdad.
“It’s difficult to live and work in a foreign country, but I have no choice. I have to send money to my family,” she said.
“My daughters had to quit school for fear of kidnapping, and my son was mistakenly arrested by US troops.”
Jordan has seen it all before. About 120,000 Lebanese sheltered there from a civil war that erupted in 1975, triggering a short-lived boom.
Red Sea beaches draw Iraqis and
After Yasser Arafat sided with Saddam in the 1990-91 Gulf crisis, and Iraq’s Arab foes retaliated by expelling their Palestinians, Jordan took in up to 300,000 and real estate prices jumped 30%.
And it still has refugee camps filled with 1.8 million Palestinians who fled oncoming Israeli armies in the Israeli-Arab wars of 1948 and 1967.
Now the country of 5.5 million reckons it has 400,000 Iraqis – or double that number, by unofficial estimate.
One of them is Saddam’s eldest daughter, Raghad, who moved to Amman along with her younger sister, Rana, shortly after the US invasion of Iraq two years ago.
Raghad shops for designer clothes and jewelry in Amman‘s fanciest shopping malls, paying cash from a black leather briefcase carried by a male Iraqi bodyguard.
Iyad Allawi, the former prime minister in the US approved Iraqi government, owns a multimillion-dollar villa.
His neighbours include the Israeli Embassy and Sabah Yassin, Saddam’s envoy to Jordan until he defected.
Iraqis had fled to Jordan during
At Dead Sea and Red Sea beaches, Iraqis, Western contractors and military officials sit elbow-to-elbow on short vacations from the war.
Two predominantly Christian quarters of the city are flooded with Iraqi Christians who have fled the violence back home.
Muhammad Farun, a Jordanian real estate developer, said some rich Iraqis showed up in Amman “with their briefcases full of cash dollars, and some buy three or four apartments at a time and pay in cash”.
Villa prices have nearly doubled and range from $353,000 to $2.8 million, while apartment prices have tripled to $212,000, Faroun said.
Official statistics show that 53% of foreign buyers are Iraqis, who had spent $84 million on 1147 homes between January and August of this year – a 137% jump from the same period a year ago.
Iraqi investment – primarily in factories and import-export – has doubled to $92.5 million in one year, according to the Ministry of Trade and Industry.
“Jordan is being invaded by Iraqi looters and prostitutes. They’re all alien to our culture and traditions”
Ahmad Uwaidi Abbadi,
Iraqis in the capital of 1.2 million people are readily distinguishable by accent, dress and Iraqi licence plates.
Mecca Mall is so popular with Iraqis that it’s known as the “Iraq mall”. Jordan clearly has been overwhelmed.
It briefly tried to close government schools to Iraqi children, but backed down under pressure from the Iraqi government, and also revoked fines imposed on Iraqis who overstayed their visas.
The Interior Ministry says only 27,000 Iraqis in the kingdom have residency permits.
The government also faces a grumpy public.
“Jordan is being invaded by Iraqi looters and prostitutes,” said Ahmad Uwaidi Abbadi, a former lawmaker who heads a small right-wing group called the National Jordanian Movement. “They’re all alien to our culture and traditions.”
Taxi driver Husain Mahmud, 32, says the Iraqis are arrogant and he no longer stops for them.
“We’ll all be happy when they go home,” he said.