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A Boom Without Bombs

As wealthy Iraqis and Westerners on leave from the war next door converge on Jordan's capital, the city's very blandness means bucks.

October 03, 2005|Ashraf Khalil | Times Staff Writer

AMMAN, Jordan — A burly American contractor and a sleek young Jordanian lawyer dig into steaming plates of Chinese noodles as Ukrainian hostesses freshen their drinks. Across town, exiled Baathist millionaires toss money at belly dancers and dedicate songs to Saddam Hussein. And outside the Bristol Hotel, tattooed private security contractors exercise their bomb-sniffing dogs.

This is the new Amman. More than two years of relentless conflict to the east has turned this once-sleepy capital into the increasingly bizarre nerve center for Iraq. It seems like something out of the movie "Casablanca" or, maybe more aptly, the cantina scene from "Star Wars."

It's the Middle East's newest boomtown. Property values are up as much as 200% in the last two years, traffic jams are worsening, and hotels are packed with the strangest of war-zone bedfellows: Iraqi politicians and businessmen, international aid workers, foreign contractors and mercenaries.

"To do business in Iraq, you have to go through Jordan," said Wael Jaabari, a wealthy real estate agent who estimates that as much as half a trillion dollars has poured into the Jordanian economy because of Iraq, starting shortly before the invasion.

Luxury villas for Iraqi businessmen and politicians such as former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi dot the landscape. Massive multinational contracting companies, Jaabari said, "are buying apartments left, right and center."

A low-slung, sand-colored city of about 2 million nestled among a cluster of rolling hills, Amman may not look like much at first. But for those emerging from the emotional and sensory assault of Baghdad 500 miles away, it might as well be paradise. The first night in a bed in a five-star Amman hotel, the first overpriced meal, the first outdoor stroll without bodyguards or paranoia -- all feel like extravagances to anyone whose life is tied to Iraq.

Five years ago, the very mention of Amman in comparison to other Arab cities would prompt snickers and eye rolling. It was a backwater next to the throbbing vitality of Cairo and glitz of a resurgent Beirut. Even Baghdad under Hussein had a livelier reputation. According to guide books, the esteemed travel writer Paul Theroux once dismissed it as "repulsively spick-and-span."

But that very blandness has become the city's principal virtue. Amman has been safe, and in the modern Middle East, safety sells.

Like age rings on a tree, several decades of turbulent Iraqi history are layered onto Amman. It's where the new Iraqi political and business elite works and plays. And where the Baath Party politicians and tycoons they replaced hide out.

"They can't go back," Jaabari said. "At least not for five or 10 years, until they clean their hands."

There are even a few exiled monarchists from the days before the 1958 overthrow of King Faisal II. "You have the ancien regime and the ancien ancien regime," an Amman-based Western diplomat who requested anonymity said with a chuckle.

Remarkably, the presence of all these traditional enemies -- along with presumably half the intelligence agencies in the world -- hasn't translated into violence, retribution or noticeable intrigue.

Residents attribute that to a combination of a stable popular monarchy, vigilant Jordanian internal security and an unspoken communal agreement to leave issues at the border.

"All foreign residents and visitors have an obvious interest in behaving within bounds here," the diplomat said. "The prominent Iraqi residents of various political hues and backgrounds will all have been told that the Jordanian authorities' continued tolerance of their presence here will depend on their respect for Jordan's laws."

The social revival is in full blossom at the restaurants, clubs and bars of a city not renowned for its nightlife. Locals mutter about the appearance of seedy bars and massage parlors packed with suddenly ubiquitous Eastern European women.

The city's war-related resurgence also coincides with an influx of free-spending vacationers and investors from Persian Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Long since frightened away from New York and London for fear of post-Sept. 11 backlash, the Gulf crowd first turned to Beirut -- until the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February.

"Now whoever was thinking Lebanon is thinking Jordan," Jaabari said. "It's hard to get a reservation lately.... We don't have enough places to entertain them."

Aside from the nightlife, Amman fulfills a vital and lucrative role as a safe staging point for operations in Iraq. For months, Royal Jordanian Airlines offered the only commercial air route out of Baghdad, a 70-minute flight to Amman for $600. Now other links to Beirut; Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Cairo have opened; but Amman remains the route of choice.

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