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JORDAN: Land of Tycoons

Driven from their own country by a deadly insurgency, Iraq's most prominent business families have exiled themselves to neighboring Jordan, where they manage their empires by telephone, e-mail and courier. At the core of this group are leaders of Iraq's dozen or so powerful merchant families who for the past century have controlled Iraq's private sector.

by Stephen GlainNewsweek International
June 19th, 2005

June 27 issue - Amman is booming. Property prices in Jordan's capital city are soaring, new luxury cars fill the streets, hotels are booked solid and the stock market is surging.

Welcome to Iraq's private sector.

Driven from their own country by a deadly insurgency, Iraq's most prominent business families have exiled themselves to neighboring Jordan, where they manage their empires by telephone, e-mail and courier. At the core of this group are leaders of Iraq's dozen or so powerful merchant families who for the past century have controlled Iraq's private sector—estimated at about 5 percent of the total under Saddam Hussein's rule. They include such venerable clans as the Al-Bunnias, the Khudairis and the Kubbas, who manage everything from Kufa Kola, a soft drink, to banks, date plantations and construction companies.

Some Iraqis are using Amman as a temporary haven from which to exploit by remote control an Iraqi economy deregulated nearly overnight by U.S. administrators. Others see opportunity in an emerging economic axis between Baghdad and Amman. Whatever the motive, resource-poor Jordan is aggressively trying to cultivate the relationship. "The reality is that Iraqis are spending more time in Amman than in Iraq," says Faris Hadad-Zervos, who heads the World Bank's Iraq office out of Amman. "I hear the Jordanian government is giving automatic residency for big spenders, and a lot of Iraqis are taking advantage of it."

The role of stable shelter for displaced Iraqis is a familiar one for the Hashemite kingdom. Jordan served as a gateway for its larger neighbor after the United Nations imposed sanctions on Iraq in response to Baghdad's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. The porous Iraqi-Jordanian border fed a huge smuggling trade that allowed many Iraqi businessmen to keep their companies afloat. The Khudairi business group—run by one of Iraq's oldest merchant families—once smuggled the components of an entire petrochemical plant from Jordan's port city of Aqaba with a well-placed bribe, says Assad Khudairi, patriarch of the clan. Iraqis used Jordanian banks to finance business with their clients.

In the relatively peaceful months that followed Saddam's removal, it seemed Iraq would no longer need Jordan as an enclave. Two years later, the colony of affluent Iraqis in Amman is a measure of how estranged war-torn Iraq has become from its private-sector elite. Take H. Mahmood Al-Bunnia & Sons Group, among Iraq's largest and most esteemed family businesses. In the spring of 2003, members of the group talked confidently about entering such noncore fields as trash collection and airlines. Those plans have been put on hold, however, as the group tries to keep its existing businesses alive with half the family in Baghdad and the other half in Amman.

From his sparsely furnished office in Abdoun, one of Amman's most stylish neighborhoods, Mustafa Al-Bunnia juggles the demands of a marketplace thousands of kilometers away. The head of the family's agribusiness division, Al-Bunnia is responsible for 6,500 employees in Iraq. Like the subsidiaries of Iraq's other big combines, Al-Bunnia's companies are highly decentralized and relatively small, a legacy of tactics employed during the Saddam era to veil profits and avoid the attention of the old regime. (The Al-Bunnia group survived the U.N. embargo relatively intact because food and agricultural goods were not on the list of sanctioned items.) He keeps in touch with his small army of managers by cell phone and e-mail, and every two weeks boards a flight for Iraq that may or may not be canceled at the last minute or forced to return to Amman in midflight out of security concerns. "The companies are running independently and automatically," Al-Bunnia says. "But I still have to be with the people."

Al-Bunnia & Sons uses warehouses in Amman to stockpile farm supplies and spare parts safe from the threat of sabotage or theft in Iraq. The group often flies in engineers and managers from Baghdad for training, most recently with representatives from New Holland, a subsidiary of the Amsterdam-registered agribusiness conglomerate CNH Global N.V. While in Jordan, Al-Bunnia lobbies international donors based there. Farming and animal husbandry employ more people than any other industry in Iraq, he argues, and should be cultivated as a way to reduce joblessness and drain sympathy for the insurgents. He also urges a dramatic appreciation of the Iraqi dinar to help farmers pay for imported goods. "The Iraqi economy is made up of two parts," Al-Bunnia says. "There's the oil economy and the people economy. The government has to start lending to farmers. Why spend $100 billion on security when you can make a huge difference investing $1 billion into the economy?"

Like other powerful Iraqi exiles, Al-Bunnia has been courted by King Abdullah, and he has met with other Iraqis to discuss investment in the kingdom. But he is cool on Amman as anything other than a transient base. "We're not investing here," he says. "It could be months, even years, before Iraq turns around, but this is still a temporary situation."

Other Iraqis are more bullish on Jordan. Talal Gaaod, a U.S.-educated engineer and a prominent member of the Dulaimi tribe, a Sunni clan from central Iraq, is making Amman a semi-permanent base for business on both sides of the border. He is working with Mitsui Corp. and other investors to build a 650-kilometer oil pipeline from Al Hadithah in western Iraq to the Jordanian city of Zarqa, plus a 300-kilometer spur to Aqaba and a refinery in Jordan.

Gaaod's company, Tabouk Group Holding Co., booked $35 million in profits last year, largely from work developing Iraq's construction and power sectors. Gaaod rotates his staff of 120 from Iraq to Amman for training with such frequency that he is shopping for a corporate jet and an airliner for cargo. In Amman, the company built a $3 million headquarters, and seeks to develop a 500-hectare property with residences, offices, parks, an opera house, hotels and a museum, at a cost of $3 billion. "We have a vision for Jordan, a new Ithad Alhashimi," says Gaaod, referring to the cold-war alliance between Iraq and Jordan, which at the time were both under Hashemite rule.

Will that vision survive a rehabilitated Iraq? Jordan has a history of thriving as a temporary haven. The kingdom prospered from the commerce of Palestinian refugees who settled there after the Arab-Israeli wars, but failed to leverage their investment into lasting growth. The wave of Palestinian guest workers who fled to Jordan from Kuwait after the Iraqi invasion fueled an economic bubble that was followed by a decade of stagnation. So long as Iraq smolders, Jordan will prosper from its exiled private sector. Sunni businessmen like Gaaod fear they may never go back, if the increasingly dominant Shiite political class should choose to play favorites. But real peace would bring many of the exiled businessmen home in a hurry.





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