AMMAN, JORDAN: As we scooted along through dense traffic that is typical of any developing country, my Jordanian host pointed out an Infiniti SUV in front of us. "Look," he said as he darted his index finger to the right, "Iraqi license plates."
Refugees have changed the roads as much as the banks, bazaars and suburbs of this Middle Eastern country. I traveled with Suleiman Halasah, the youngest member of the Jordanian Rotary Club and a man who is highly connected and motivated as one of the leaders of Arava Power Company, a joint Israeli-Jordanian electricity generation project.
Suleiman gave me invaluable insight into the numbers I had heard only in fleeting references on the celebrity-filled U.S. news, where soundbites from the Middle East rarely include refugee statistics.
The United Nations Refugee Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) reports on its website that Jordan is home to 1,835,704 refugees, out of a total population of 5.6 million. That gives Jordan by far the most Palestinian refugees in the region. The next highest on the list is Lebanon, with just over 400,000, which is less than one-fourth of Jordan’s total. Since UNWRA statistics only track the 4.4 million Palestinian refugees in the Middle East, and not those who have fled from Iraq during the past twenty-something years of war with Iran, the Gulf War, punitive sanctions and the current war, we must consider Iraqi refugees in Jordan as a separate statistical and economic issue.
Jordan requires that refugees from Iraq, just a couple hours’ drive from the capital Amman, be below 20 years old or over 40 years old to gain entry. But that hasn’t stopped hoards of illegal immigrants from coming across the border, depressing wages in unskilled trades in much the same way that another porous desert border–between the U.S. and Mexico–has changed the labor landscape on the other side of the world.
Suleiman says the official tally is around 600,000 Iraqis currently living in Jordan, but that the real number is closer to a million. Of that million, the wealthiest (like the SUV driver ahead of us in a mid-day Amman bottleneck) have come since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. They are the classic exiles: doctors, lawyers, and other professionals who had the financial means and connections to get out quickly along with their wealth. Even Saddam’s daughters live there now.
"However," Suleiman added, "most of them are staying in Jordan waiting for their immigration." That’s immigration elsewhere, mainly to Europe or Canada. These displaced Iraqis have no desire to stay in Jordan, where they see the nearly 2 million third-generation Palestinian refugees around them as an unenviable population.
For their part, the Palestinian refugee population of Jordan–most of whom live not in refugee camps but in cities, as Jordan is the only Arab state to have offered its Palestinian refugees citizenship–had no intention of becoming wards of the United Nations and tepid local governments for over sixty years.
The signs of Iraqi permanence are already showing. I mean physical signs, like the placards on buildings that announce the presence of Iraqi-run banks.
"Jordanian banks use il-bank," Suleiman told me with a soft "a" in the Arabic loan word for lending institutions, pointing out a local branch of the chain il-Bank il-Ahli. Just across the street, on a smaller building with a wrought iron fence, the sign read Masrif il-Rafidain, "Bank of the Two Rivers." Masrif is the word Iraqis use for "bank," and Rafidain refers to those ancient Mesopotamian boundaries, the Tigris and Euphrates.
Interestingly, Suleiman informed me that even this bank with the obvious Iraqi name was not a newcomer from the refugee influxes. In fact, it had been established before the Gulf War. Iraq’s presence in Jordan and bi-national trade have always been strong, leading many Iraqis to feel at home there.
The Iraqis of Jordan–whether refugees from Saddam who became merchants, selling old 20 dinar notes emblazoned with the dictator’s youthful visage to tourists like me (yes, I bought one for 1 Jordanian dinar), or doctors who tool around in their SUVs waiting for an uncle in Canada to speed a visa through to the local embassy–are for the time being an unmistakable part of Jordan and its economic situation.
Being Jordanian residents means that Iraqis and Palestinians have a role in business and tourist relations with the "Zionist entity," Israel. Since Jordan and Israel have an open border and are encouraged by BIRD, the Israel-U.S. Binational Industrial Research and Development Foundation, to establish cooperative industrial projects, the potential has dawned for Jordan to piggyback on Israel’s high-tech success.
I saw office buildings in Amman bearing the names of the Jordanian Investment Board, several trade bodies, and the sort of dot-com companies one sees all over Israel. Since Jordan, like Israel and unlike Iraq, has little in the way of natural resources, the bread and butter of this country’s future will be brainpower.
Jordan’s primary export is phosphate, very useful for fertilizer production and export but not nearly as useful in local agriculture since water in Jordan is extremely scarce. It makes sense then for the service sector to comprise nearly 70% of the Jordanian economy (according to the Federation of International Trade Associations).
Jordan is a member of the World Trade Organization and has a bilateral free trade agreement with the U.S., and as a flipside to the refugee coin, many reconstruction projects for Iraq are based in Jordan.
Jordan is also experimenting with special economic zones, or SEZs, like the pilot project in Aqaba on the country’s Red Sea coast, adjacent to the Israeli city of Eilat. Tax benefits and minimal government interference have drawn heavy private-sector investment since the SEZ was established in 2002. But the jobs created there are in the sparsely-populated south.
For Jordan to provide gainful employment for its immense refugee population, many of whom are not likely to leave any time soon, the SEZ model must spread to other parts of the country.
As the private sector revs up and multinational corporations warm up to Jordan, we will start seeing the debut of serious public trading opportunities for international investors looking to take part in Jordan’s economic boom.