Amman’s real estate market booms with Iraqis who have fled their homeland for good

Story and photos by Samantha Laine

AMMAN, Jordan – Tariq Al-Nami, 70, and his fellow Iraqi friend drink tea with mint outside a restaurant in their northwest Amman neighborhood. Nami retired to Rabiah three years ago to find some desperately needed relief from the reality and volatility of his homeland in Iraq.

“The government can’t save themselves, so they can’t save us,” Nami said, gesturing with his hands in between sips. “Here in Jordan, I can walk outside on the street at night. Not like back there.”

A retired furniture vendor, Nami said that when the Coalition forces launched an attack in 2003, the offensive destroyed much of Iraq’s infrastructure, leaving the country in turmoil. There were frequent explosions. The government cut the electricity for 20 hours a day. Healthcare was suddenly so diminished that Nami, who has colon cancer, had no choice but to seek his life-sustaining treatment in Amman.

This rooftop penthouse in the Abdoun neighborhood of Amman has four bedrooms and five bathrooms for a total of 3,660 square feet. It is currently going for 450,000 Jordanian dinar, or about $635,000.

Nami bought a three-bedroom, three-bathroom apartment that measured a little more than 1,600 square feet for 125,000 Jordanian dinar, or about $176,000. Like so many of his wealthy peers who come to Jordan from their war-torn homeland, he paid for his flat in cash.

“The [Iraqis] who come are upper class. They have higher education and most of them worked in the government back in Iraq,” he said.

Today, nine years after the war began, Iraqis are still moving in and buying houses. And the ones already here are sinking even more into the market – buying three and four apartments each. As a result, there’s a boom in Amman’s real estate and housing prices – which is good for landlords, but difficult for locals who now can’t afford to buy their own place.

“Maybe it’s good for the economy, but not good for the people,” said Zuhdi Mahmoud, 30, the managing director at Cityscape, a real estate company located in Amman. “I’m a real estate agent; I will welcome anyone to buy a house. But at the end of the day, I’m one of the people that can’t afford a house.”

From 2000 to 2010, revenue from the annual real estate market increased from $93 million to nearly $381 million – a spike of more than 400 percent. Many of those numbers reflect purchases made by Jordan’s estimated 450,000 Iraqis, who are the No. 1 foreign investors in this country of 6.5 million Jordanians.

In 2010, for example, Iraqis bought about 2,000 houses and apartments – a total investment of more than $286 million. That’s about the same number in one year that the previous three years together produced. (From 2007 through 2009, Iraqis purchased a total of 2,623 houses and apartments and spent about $260 million in Jordan.)

Wael Al-Jaabari, the CEO of Abdoun Real Estate, started his Amman company in 1990. Around that time, he said an American economist told him that if he stayed in Jordan real estate, “he would see money like he’s never seen before in his life.” He said the American was right.

“Since then, there’s been one boom right after the other,” Al-Jaabari said. The Central Bank also contributed to the real estate boom, when in 2006 it began offering 20- to 25-year mortgages instead of the previous five-year mortgages.

“The Iraqis got lucky,” Al-Jaabari said.

In addition, many experts agree that there’s a qualitative difference in the way the Iraqis come in to Jordan. In general, most of them fled flush with cash and as business investors with the intention of staying permanently. Others who come, such as the more recent influx of Syrians and Libyans, are there only because it’s safe; they fled under fire, and above all else, they want to get back home.

Tariq Al-Nami, 70, is one of the 450,000 Iraqis who has found refuge in Jordan. He plans to spend his retirement years in his 1,600-square-foot apartment in the Rabiah neighborhood of Amman.

Ali Mustafa Al-Assaf is an economist and business researcher at the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan. The center analyzes real estate prices and identifies trends in the market. Assaf said the prices began their drastic increase in 2003, corresponding with the Iraqis’ long-term settlement in Amman.

“They have a lot of money . . . When they came to Jordan, they didn’t come as refugees, they came as investors,” Al-Assaf said. This sudden demand caused the prices to increase. “Take a square meter here in Amman that cost 250 JD (about $350). After the Iraqis came, it went to 500 JD (about $705),” he said.

The real estate market is currently stable, and prices remain high. Fewer Iraqis are moving to Jordan, and yet they are still Jordan’s highest non-domestic investor. As a point of reference: If in 2010, Iraq was responsible for about $286 million in property investments, Saudi Arabians, second in foreign investments, only bought about $43 million in Jordanian real estate.

Mahmoud, the managing director at Cityscape, said that roughly six out of 10 landlords he deals with are Iraqi, and each one owns three or four apartments.

“I know in 2003 and 2004 Amman was booming because of the Iraqis. Now, they still come and buy because they consider Amman their second country,” Mahmoud said. “If they have one property, they will buy another one.”

He also said that the Iraqis who came starting in 2003 now have children who need homes. Since they have settled in Amman, they – the financially supportive parents – continue to buy for their children.

“Say the family has a son and a daughter: The parents will buy properties for both of them. And I don’t think they buy anything in Iraq,” he said, noting that a whole new generation of Iraqi investors will eventually emerge and continue to invest in Amman.

“Traditionally, the parents buy for the kids,” he said. “That’s the Arab culture.”


Fitness first? Not in Jordan, where most people choose not to exercise

By Bri Hollis and Jessica Teich // Photos by Jessica Teich

AMMAN, Jordan – Shaded paths wind throughout Al Hussein Park, a multi-leveled, lush space in West Amman. Dirt trails stretch through Sport City, a wooded park on the outskirts of the capital and insulated by trees from the cacophony of honking car horns.

Yet these spaces aren’t teeming with runners trying to punch out a few miles before work. They’re largely empty, a reality that speaks less to the quality of the parks and more to a culture that honors tea time but doesn’t value regular exercise.

Running paths at Al Hussein Park in West Amman remain underutilized, even though the park is one of few areas in the city designated specifically for exercise.

“I don’t think [going to] the gym is very important,” said Ehsan Eljarah, 27, a taxi driver from West Amman. “I have to work and have no time, and work is more important.”

Ahmad Bakheet, 21, an engineering student at the University of Jordan, seconds Eljarah’s notion.

“I play football once a week at the university,” he said. “I play games with my friends, but I am too busy to play more than once a week. I have exams and homework, and that is more important to me.”

And though a healthy exercise regime and diet have been linked to an increased lifespan, improved mood and diminished risk for disease, the Jordanian population remains, for the most part, uninformed.

The obesity rate in Jordan increased from 19.5 percent in 2004 to almost double that – 39.8 percent – in 2010 according to studies from the CIA World Factbook and Hayder al-Domi, professor of nutrition and dietetics at the University of Jordan.

Diabetes is becoming a prevalent issue in Jordan; 13.6 percent of the population is currently suffering from the disease, and an additional 12.4 percent is pre-diabetic. As health problems such as high blood cholesterol and colon disease also increase countrywide, local health professionals are seeking to promote healthier lifestyles.

Nour Hamemeed, a clinical nutritionist at Petra University in Amman, has been working to create encouraging incentives for students to live healthier. She analyzes their lifestyles in order to create personalized exercise and dietary plans – free of charge. But she says the motivation just isn’t there.

“Most people don’t keep up with the plans I give them because they want to lose weight like magic. They end up not sticking to the diet and exercise,” Hamemeed said. “People want to go to sleep fat and wake up thin.”

Dr. Abdelkarim al-Khawaldeh, president of the Jordanian Society of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism, agreed that many Jordanians aren’t willing to put forth the effort to be healthier.

“Our people are used to the easy life. They want to sit in the car or watch TV or sit at the computer, and they don’t walk a lot,” he said. “They should exercise more, eat small frequent meals, and the main thing is walking; because it is easy, you don’t need to pay money, you don’t need a special time, and you can do it anytime and anywhere.”

Hamemeed collaborated with several other lab technicians in the university’s nutrition department to create the Petra Walk, a program where students, employees and their families are invited on a five-mile walk around the school. Around 40 attendees were present at the most recent event.

“We only had it once last year and once this year, but now we are going to try to have it every two weeks,” Hamemeed said. “It’s more fun because students are walking together and other people can see the students having fun and want to join.”

Part of the challenge, Hamemeed and Khawaldeh say, is that there is no culture of participating in strenuous exercise in Jordan. And in Amman specifically, the city’s terrain further complicates the issue. The majority of roads are clogged with traffic and drivers who do not yield to pedestrians. Sidewalks have steep curbs, are blocked by parked cars or trees and often end without warning. Many are dotted with rubble. In fact, exercising outdoors is so rare that when a runner is spotted, he is often approached and asked from what or whom he is trying to escape.

This forces exercise-seeking residents to either utilize the limited outdoor spaces, or to splurge on a pricey gym membership. With most gym fees averaging around 120 Jordanian dinar a month, about $169, most locals are unwilling or unable to pay.

There is also a widely held belief that exercise is a burden, Hamemeed said. That’s why she emphasizes fun ways to exercise, such as dancing and aerobics.

The second floor of Fitness First Platinum is far from crowded at 11 a.m., a time reserved solely for women. Here, only one woman follows a personal trainer in the gym’s free weights section.

Buthaina Haddad is a testament to how appealing group workouts can be. Lounging in the air-conditioned comfort of Fitness First Platinum, a posh gym in an upscale Amman neighborhood, the 46-year-old mother is a committed exerciser.

As she peeked over a copy of The Jordan Times, she chatted and laughed with some girlfriends, similarly dressed in black spandex and exercise gear. Haddad tossed her hair, curled and highlighted, over one shoulder and explained with conviction the reason she’s been willing to forfeit more than $6,800 to Fitness First over the past four years:

“It’s very important to work out,” said the energetic and fit stay-at-home mom, underscoring the natural feel-good benefits that come with an endorphin rush. “[Exercise] is an anti-depressant. I am happy and refreshed and healthy.”

Haddad works out five days a week, and though she encourages family and friends to engage in a healthy lifestyle as well, almost no one takes her up on it.

This could be changing, though. Other local gyms are beginning to offer special programs to foster increased participation. Incentives include fitness classes, sports competitions and personal training sessions. Most centers also reserve a time window exclusively for women, because Jordanian culture enforces dress and appearance restrictions. Female-only sessions ensure that despite the difference in gender roles, women have a place to feel comfortable and accepted while exercising.

The movement has also slowly begun to penetrate the public school system. Throughout elementary and high school, students are required to attend gym classes once or twice a week as a primary source of fitness education. Jordanian universities have competitive sports teams, though they are far less competitive than their Western counterparts. Students looking to play a sport at the university level submit written applications to earn a spot on the court or field. Universities also offer indoor and outdoor space for recreational athletic activity.

Hamemeed emphasizes the importance of small changes to kick-start the movement. She explains that small adaptations to daily routines can be a strong, motivating incentive to make a permanent healthy change.

“People make excuses that it is too hard to find time and places to exercise, so I tell them other things to do. Go shopping and walk there – and if you drive there, park your car far away. Take the stairs, not the elevator,” advises Hamemeed. “If someone really wants to lose weight and be healthy, despite the circumstances, they will do what it takes.”

Rising gas prices hurt drivers, but will help ease the budget crunch, officials hope

Story by Laura Finaldi

AMMAN, Jordan – The Jordanian government announced that it will no longer subsidize the price of 95-octane gas, forcing a nearly 20 percent increase on drivers who use it. At 1 Jordanian dinar, or about $1.41 per liter, that price now far outpaces the cost of gas in the United States, where the equivalent is $5.34 per gallon.

This hike, which took effect May 28, marks the first major increase in gasoline prices since the beginning of the Arab Spring in January 2011. That’s when riots broke out in different parts of the region and Jordan froze gas prices as one of the many precautions it took to stem fear of similar outbreaks.

The price of 95-octane gasoline shot up almost 20 percent to more than $5 a gallon at the end of May, making it unaffordable for many Jordanians.

But Kholoud Mahasneh, director of the Oil and Petroleum Products Department at the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources, said Jordan’s deficit has grown so big – reaching nearly $4 billion – that continuing to subsidize gas would sink the nation even further into economic despair. Last year, 570 million Jordanian dinar, or about $804.5 million, were spent on subsidies alone.

“Our financial situation is pretty bad,” Mahasneh said. “We can’t pay subsidies anymore. It’s eating our budget.”

The government has not, however, raised the price of 90-octane gas, a fuel used by 82 percent of drivers here. Ninety-five octane gas is generally considered to be easier on vehicles, so it’s always been more expensive, but 90-octane is cheaper. Mahasneh said 95-octane gas is generally very compatible with European-made cars.

Prices on diesel fuel and kerosene will also remain subsidized, as they have been since 2008 after an order from King Abdullah II. Talib Awad, an economist at the University of Jordan’s Center for Strategic Studies, said he doesn’t expect those prices to change any time soon because the subsidies on them are very small. But Waheed Foudeh, owner of a gas station on Airport Street, said he expects prices to go up within the next five or six months.

Those who benefit from the subsidies are, for the most part, non-Jordanians, Awad said. Seventy percent of those who use 90-octane gas are immigrants from Egypt, Syria and Iraq. So, he said, the government money put into these subsidies isn’t going back into the pockets of needy Jordanians.

“Once gasoline commodities increase, the prices of most or all consumer goods will go up. This is actually not rational behavior,” he said. “We have a serious problem in terms of deficit. They need extra revenues to fix the problem of deteriorating money supply.”

Here in Amman, gas station owners and petroleum companies are feeling the change. Ghandi Jaber, a gas station owner who has stations in Amman, Israel and Chicago, said in the first week of the price hike, he saw a 70 percent to 80 percent drop in sales of gasoline 95. Foudeh said he saw the same drop in his station’s supply of 95-octane gas.

“I used to sell 95 because it’s better for the car. After the price has changed, [people use] 90 more,” Jaber said a week after the increase took place. “Even the petroleum companies that bring us the gas, they feel it. They used to sell almost 200 trucks of 95 and 300 of 90. Now it’s about 100 [of] 95 and 500 of 90.”

Jordan suffers because it is a dry country with few natural resources. It has to import fuel from Saudi Arabia and other large oil producers around the region. As a result, citizens are forced to pay more than surrounding countries for gasoline and other oil-based commodities. By comparison, a liter of gasoline in Saudi Arabia costs only about 13 cents.

“We are living among countries who are very rich with natural resources,” Awad said. “In Jordan, this is a problem of rising taxes and rising costs of energy. [It] affects consumers.”

Jaber isn’t so sure the price changes will ease the country’s money troubles. As he speaks, he smokes his cigarette and takes sips from his gas station-brewed coffee in the back of his station, which is near the seventh circle of Amman. “No [this will not help] because everyone will switch to 90,” he said. “Everyone will do what is best for him or herself. They’re not thinking about the bigger picture. They just need to survive.”

Some business owners such as Foudeh do not blame the government for doing what it has to do to raise gas prices; although the cost of living is largely unaffordable, the problem of the large deficit remains.

“I think they have to [stop the subsidies] because there is no money in the Central Bank in Jordan,” he said. “There was no work, no money. Nobody pays taxes. The government doesn’t have money so they are afraid.”

Tourism suffers in Jordan in the wake of Arab Spring

Story and photo by Clare Coughlan

As Jill Ryan and her boyfriend stroll down Rainbow Street in Amman, she holds out several Jordanian piastres so he can tell her how much each of the unfamiliar coins is worth. Today is the first of a 10-day trip to Jordan for Ryan, a 22-year-old waitress from Dublin, who is here to visit her boyfriend studying Arabic in the region.

“My friends were like, ‘Is that safe? Are you going to be killed by terrorists?’” she said.

In 2010, Jordan had one of its most profitable years ever for tourism – 2.5 billion dinar, or about $3.5 billion. But in 2011, tourism to Jordan dropped 16 percent – a reality many here assign to fears surrounding the current unrest across the Middle East. In a country where on average, about $3 billion comes from tourism every year – which directly accounts for more than 7 percent of the country’s gross domestic product – a dip that significant can put thousands of jobs at risk.

Lorrance Hausrie, the owner of souvenir shop Jara in Amman, said that business has declined in the past year, but she believes it will improve in the future because of Jordan’s relative calm in an otherwise unpredictable region.

“Yes, we’ve had cancellations. More than 50 percent in the past three years,” said Saeed Al-Dawoudi, general manager of Winner International Tours of Jordan, a travel agency located on chi-chi Rainbow Street in Amman. He said that April 2011, the height of the Arab Spring movement, was the biggest month for cancellations at the company – especially among Americans and Europeans – since Sept. 11, 2001.

Tha’er Khateeb, assistant restaurant manager at the Marriott in Amman, agreed, saying that Sept. 11 impacted tourism worldwide, but the Arab Spring has turned visitors away from the Middle East in particular. “The crisis in Syria affected us a lot. Egypt too. Especially Egypt,” said Khateeb.

Even though Jordan hasn’t faced as much turbulence as other countries in the area, violence still affects potential tourists’ view of the Middle East region. So, by association, this small country of 6.5 million is suffering.

“We are in the middle of the struggles. Tourists think Jordan is the same country as Iraq,” said Al-Dawoudi. “They hear ‘Middle East’ and they get scared.” To illustrate that point, the Jordan Tourism Board offered this snapshot statistic: The number of European tourists visiting Wadi Rum, one of the most popular destinations here, decreased by 50.6 percent from 2010 to 2011.

However, there is hope. While Americans and Europeans are still staying away, Middle Eastern tourists, especially from the wealthier Arabian Gulf nations such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates, are beginning to return to Jordan, especially since vacation hotspots such as Egypt and Syria are not options these days.

Cynthia Barcham, a 27-year-old Beirut native, was in Amman in May for her work at the Goethe-Institut, a German cultural organization. Sitting in the lobby of the Amman West Hotel with her luggage, she said that business brought her to Jordan, but she was looking forward to spending a few hours at the Dead Sea before her flight home.

“Everyone is very welcoming here, but all the Arab countries are like this. It’s not like Europe,” Barcham said.

Siham Gammoh, the director of research at the Amman-based Jordan Tourism Board, said in the first four months of 2012, the number of Arabian Gulf visitors to Jordan increased 19 percent from the previous year. Arabian Gulf tourists, in the past, vacationed in places such as Beirut or Damascus, but conflict in the region has caused them to look elsewhere. And it looks like some of them are coming here.

That’s a sentiment echoed by Lorrance Hausrie, the owner of Jara on Rainbow Street. In her store, she sells jewelry and scarves and depends on tourists visiting the famous, trendy street. Hausrie believes that tourism is down overall, but there have been more Saudi Arabian and Bahraini tourists in the past several months.

“Before they went to Syria, but now they come to Jordan,” said Hausrie. “They know our country is safe.”

Browsing Hausrie’s store is Lauren Rayner, a 30-year-old psychiatric researcher from London. Rayner said that the conflict in the region didn’t affect her decision to take a nine-day vacation to Jordan.

“My mum was a bit worried,” said Rayner, but stressed that her friends were jealous of, not worried about, her trip. Rayner visited the Dead Sea, Petra and Wadi Rum, and spent her last day of vacation in Amman. She decided to come to Jordan because she found cheap airline tickets, and after doing research found that Jordan offered a mix of climates and experiences.

“We try to promote Jordan as a variety,” said Siham Gammoh of the Jordan Tourism Board. The board is partially supported by the government, and partially supported by private enterprises. But Al-Dawoudi said promoting Jordan has been one of his biggest obstacles. He said in the past, most of his clients visited Jordan as one leg of a longer Middle Eastern trip, often to Egypt, Israel and Lebanon. So when Egypt faces a period of turbulence, visitors cancel the entire trip and Jordan loses out as well.

“Now we cannot promote other countries with Jordan. We can only promote Jordan,” said Al-Dawoudi, adding that Winner has encouraged business travelers such as Barcham to continue exploring Jordan when their business trips are completed.

Although Winner has not laid off employees due to the Arab Spring, Al-Dawoudi said other travel agencies have had to. In 2011, 113,500 Jordanians officially worked in the tourism sector, according to a report by the World Travel and Tourism Council. A report by the Jordan Tourism Board stated that only about 1 percent of those people lost their jobs last year, but others indirectly associated with tourism – such as cab drivers – would have been seriously affected too.

The hope among all in the tourism industry is that vacationers from other Arab states keep coming, and that Americans and Europeans decide to come back too.

“If we have tourists, we can work,” said Hausrie, echoing the fears of many business owners.

Jordanian women hope to learn English for an edge in the job market

Story and photos by Kate Lieb

AMMAN, Jordan – Nina Angeles, 20, is standing at the front of a classroom in The Queen Rania Family and Child Center, trying to mime the difference between the words “very” and “too,” and how to use them separately in a sentence.

Angeles, a student from Northeastern University in Jordan on a six-month co-op job, is teaching English in a large, clean classroom arranged in a U-shape to accommodate the 11 women who are there because they need to know English to live a better life.

“Miriam says, ‘I can do it, I’m sure.’ She is” – pause – “confident,” Angeles speaks out loud, trying to prompt them to fill in the blank.

Nina Angeles, Northeastern University student, in Amman for six months to teach English to women, is instructing her students about adjectives and their usage.

She waits until the class has finished writing down the prompt in their notebooks before asking for an answer. In unison, the women yelled “very” and beamed when Angeles informed them it was the correct answer.

The QRFCC, located in Jabal Al Nasser in the eastern section of Amman, is one part of the Jordan River Foundation, a non-governmental organization. According to Merwa Mahmoud, the community center’s coordinator, it serves to “empower women, family and young girls.”

Samar Abdallah Al-Shami, 24, is a student in the class who recently finished her master’s degree in information and library management at Al-Balqa Applied University in Salt. She said she’s in the class because “I love English. It’s a plus to my resume.”

She represents one of the many in this country who face the challenge of finding a job in a tough economic climate, which is especially true for women. The unemployment rate for men here is 10 percent while it is 25 percent for women. Some of that disparity, experts said, is because of cultural norms that suggest women shouldn’t be working in the first place.

“If an employer is hiring and interviews men and women, he is more likely to hire a male over a female, even if she has a good educational background,” Angeles said. She added that many women, such as Al-Shami, take English classes outside of their universities to better their standing in the job market.

Zeinab Kailani, an English professor at the University of Jordan, said that the expectation among the elite here is that anyone who is educated should speak English. And because of the rising unemployment rates, she believes demand for English classes such as the ones offered at QRFCC is increasing.

“English is a prerequisite for a job in Jordan. Everyone asks for an excellent level,” she said. “Interest in English as a second language has increased because of the economy and because of the social status associated with it.”

Angeles, an international affairs and human services double major, began a recent class at 9:30 a.m. in a large, mint green room just inside the entrance of the Queen Rania Center. All eleven of the women in the class wore hijabs. They clutched notebooks and pens as they waited for Angeles to begin.

Students in this English language class are taking notes on adjectives such as really, very, rather and too.

Her students have a wide range of ability. Some can speak English conversationally. Some can’t even use basic greetings. That requires her to switch between teaching in English and Arabic, a language she picked up during her studies at Northeastern and living here in Amman.

Standing in front of an easel with large white paper, Angeles began her lecture on adjectives. She was trying to explain the meaning of “rather,” “very,” “extremely,” and “too,” but she noticed, among many of the 11, a perplexed look.

“Extremely is to a very high degree,” she said, and then offered an example: “Lisa says ‘I’m never wrong.’ She is extremely confident.”

Now everyone looked confused. Finally, Eman Mostafa, 39, tried to help her clarify.

“Do you mean manner?” she asked. It turns out they couldn’t understand what she meant by “high degree.”

“Yes, that’s a better way to put it,” Angeles replied. She explained the correction in Arabic for those who couldn’t understand, and then moved on.

The lesson might seem as though it is focusing on the subtleties of the language, but that’s the kind of instruction students trying to master English need to have, said Maram Jamed, 22, who just finished her studies in accounting at Al-Balqa Applied University.

“English is important for technology, like for the Internet I need to know English because it’s on websites,” said Jamed, who is taking this class because she in the process of looking for a job. “Life is hard,” she added, “and no one can live by himself.”