A Boom Without Bombs

Times Staff Writer

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.

International organizations such as the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross maintain large operations here, usually connected to skeleton staffs hunkered down behind blast walls in Baghdad. Nongovernmental organizations based in the Iraqi capital often open satellite offices in Amman to interact with the outside world, including donors.

Wealthy Iraqi businessmen keep their families and primary offices here, with one or two trusted relatives based back home.

"There's a lot of remote-controlling going on," said Joost Hiltermann, the Amman-based Middle East director for International Crisis Group, an independent conflict-resolution think tank. "You have here all the people who don't want to expose their families to violence, kidnapping, bad schools, etc."

What's bad for Iraq has almost invariably been good for Jordan.

For more than a decade, a steady flow of goods across the Jordanian border enabled Hussein to defy U.N. sanctions. In return, the Jordanian government received millions of dollars in free Iraqi oil. Hussein's largesse also co-opted most of Jordan's media outlets, professional syndicates and much of the government.

"Everybody but the royal family" was on Hussein's payroll, one Jordanian businessmen said, asking that his name not be used, for fear of retribution.

After Hussein's ouster in 2003, Jordan quickly shifted tracks, becoming a center for reconstruction conferences and a training site for new Iraqi police. Amman became even more important as Iraq's security situation deteriorated, forcing international organizations and businesses to relocate. Now rich Iraqi businessmen are given fast-track residency and even citizenship in Jordan.

"Quietly, a lot of people in Jordan got on with the business of making a lot of money," the Western diplomat said. "The Jordanian attitude to this has been pretty hypocritical."

Manal Omar, regional coordinator for Women for Women International, an NGO, summed up the attitude she hears from many Iraqis about Jordan: "It profited from propping up Saddam. It profited from the sanctions. And now it's profiting from the current misery."

The good times won't last if the new rulers of Iraq have their way. Many leaders of the Shiite Muslim coalition controlling the government in Baghdad nurse a grudge against Jordan for helping Hussein and accuse it of ignoring Iraq-bound insurgents they say are crossing its borders.

Jordan's King Abdullah II, a Sunni Muslim, is regarded as an opponent of the Shiite resurgence, and Jordanians in general are viewed as Hussein sympathizers.

Omar, of Women for Women, recalls a dinner with several Iraqis on the day Hussein was captured by U.S. forces. The Iraqis celebrated loudly and danced the traditional group dance known as the chobi, to the fury of the other patrons.

When she organized a July conference on women's rights in the Iraqi constitution, several prominent Shiite politicians threatened to boycott unless the venue was moved to Dubai.

"They don't want one more penny spent in Jordan," Omar says.

Jordanians are understandably defensive. One Amman native, an employee at a foreign embassy, offered her take on Jordan's relationship with the Iraqi government under Hussein: "It wasn't profiting. It was surviving."

Despite their criticism of Jordan, an estimated 500,000 Iraqis have flocked to the kingdom in search of a normal life. Nadeem Hamid, a young Iraqi singer, came to Amman with his fledgling band, Unknown to No One, after a foreign contractor in Iraq heard them and offered sponsorship, training and studio time.

Like many Iraqi transplants, Hamid landed in the Shmesani neighborhood, where he recalled watching in shock as rich Iraqis in a local nightclub drank toasts to Hussein and "the heroes of Fallouja," the insurgent stronghold on the Amman-Baghdad highway.

By day, Iraqis rich and poor crowd the gleaming corridors of Amman's Mecca Mall.

"We call it the Iraqi embassy," Hamid said. "When you hear a Jordanian accent there, it's like a shock."

Then there are the foreign mercenaries. Thousands of muscle-bound, hard-living security contractors have turned the capital into their final party spot before heading into Iraq, and their detox-from-mayhem point on the way out.

In a dark, top-floor bar hidden away from the families dining in the otherwise sedate Shanghai Chinese restaurant, a platoon of European women patrols the room, indulging the whims of patrons. The girls are forbidden to sit, so they stand making small talk over the blaring Arabic and Western pop music. They get a cut of the drinks they serve nonstop, accept tips appreciatively, and the rest seems subject to negotiation.

Rami, who like everyone else in the bar declined to have his full name published, says he's one of 2,000 attorneys attached to an Amman-based legal support committee for Hussein. Sharply dressed and cheerfully amoral, Rami hard-sells an offer to a journalist: exclusive scoops from inside the defense committee.

"I'm not here to name a price, I'm here to listen" to offers, he says, claiming to speak for the committee's leadership.

Hussein's family has since fired the committee.

Rami's companions include Jim, a red-faced American civil engineer fresh from construction work in Iraq. Jim recently met Marina, a blond Ukrainian in her early 20s and a hostess at the Chinese restaurant. After several weeks of buying drinks and tipping high, Jim convinced her to start coming away on weekend trips.

"After that, I didn't mind coming to Amman anymore," he says.

Across town in the Torro Negro bar, a singer performs Arabic pop songs while a dozen Arab and European women in tight dresses work the tables. Half a dozen more sit on the sidelines.

Diana, a Syrian with a low-cut top and exposed belly button, leans in and places both hands on a new customer's thigh to ask what he'd like to drink, and would he buy her one too?

A few drinks later she whispers, "Habibi" -- darling -- "I don't really care about the beer. I know you'll take care of me."

At another table, several European men, one beefy and sporting tattoos, cheerfully chat up passing hostesses. Nearby, an older man in the signature Gulf wardrobe of spotless white dishdasha robe and red-checked kaffiyeh head cloth sits silently, arms folded over his lap, watching like a lion tracking gazelles.

When Diana leans over a neighboring table, one of the Europeans gives her a loud smack on the rump, prompting some playful scolding.

The man's companion arches his eyebrows and deadpans, "No, I don't think the foreigners have changed Amman much."

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