A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

Archive for the ‘Jordan’ Category

giving credit [cards] where credit is due

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 9, 2008

Reading a newspaper article about the return of layaway yesterday on the train prompted me to think a bit about the differences I have seen between credit cards in the US and in the Arab world.

In the United States, there has been for at least the past seventeen years (the length of time since I had my first credit card) no correlation between income and credit limit. My first credit card had a $1000 limit, but that soon jumped to $5000 – far more than my income as a junior in high school, even if I did have a part-time job.

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Today my credit limit is a substantial multiple of that. I’ve never used it all – in fact, I’ve never come close to a $5,000 balance. But I could – and so could many other Americans, with incomes much less (and much greater, of course) than mine.

I don’t think of this as a particularly healthy system, and part of me thinks that the credit seizure happening today is a much needed correction. But when I learned how credit card allocations work (or worked – this was two years ago) in the region, I suddenly found myself tut-tutting and thinking of how much more liberal our system is.

Why? Because in much of the Arab world, credit card limits are (or again, were) tied to their holder’s monthly salaries.

I learned this one evening while out watching a football match with two friends, R and M. M worked for a bank, and R was interested in increasing his credit card limit.

Well, M said. What’s your salary?

I nearly died of embarrassment, on both their behalfs. There were five of us at the cafe, and I knew I would be mortified if I had to suddenly announce my salary in front of four others – even if they were friends.

Oh, its Xxxx, R replied off-handedly.

Hang on, M said, pulling out his mobile phone to use as a calculator. He punched in a few numbers, frowned, punched in a few more, and finally said:

Well, I think if you switched to our bank we could give you Xxxx as a credit limit.

And that was it. No blanket offers in the mail. No notices that “your credit has been automatically increased to [astronomical amount x]”.

At the time, I found this system totally off-putting. I couldn’t imagine having to submit my paystubs to a bank in order to get a credit card – or being judged unworthy of a substantial credit limit.

But now I’m wondering whether my response wasn’t more than a little short-sighted. If U.S. credit card companies had offered fewer cards to those unable to hold them, or tied credit limits even loosely to ability to pay, I wonder how many people today would feel less frightened about the perilous state of their finances.

alnahar

Posted in advertising, Arab world, economics, friends, Jordan, Lebanon, time, vanity | 6 Comments »

signs of the times: frequent flying to Iraq

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 1, 2008

My return to New York yesterday was  hit with the usual winter travel snafus: weather delays, mechanical problems, and travelers with too much luggage. But I had work to do and a flexible schedule, so the extended airport time didn’t bother me too much.

And sitting in the airport certainly bothered me less than flying on a broken plane would have – so I was quite grateful when my original airline wrote my ticket over to an American flight.

American is an airline that I don’t often fly, so I put our “penalty box” delay to good use by reading its in-flight magazine. I was intrigued to learn that Royal Jordanian Airlines, which I used to fly quite frequently, is now an American partner:

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I spent a few petulant moments imagining all the frequent flier miles I might have accumulated had this partnership been operative back in the early 2000s, when I noticed that the Royal Jordanian line had footnotes next to its X’es (its the bottom line in the photo above – sorry its so blurry).

Aha, I thought, feeling suddenly vindicated, I bet those miles don’t really translate into American Airlines frequent flier miles.

But that wasn’t want the footnote was for – or at least, it didn’t apply to all Royal Jordanian flights:

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I imagine that miles flown on Royal Jordanian’s flights to and from Iraq are not eligible to be counted as frequent flier miles because technically no American is supposed to be traveling to Iraq, but I’m curious whether anyone knows the full answer.

And if you’ve ever flown one of these flights and tried to get mileage credit for it, I would love to hear your story. Given my own experiences trying to get credit for my usual US airline with flights taken on its Middle East partners, I suspect that asking for flight credit for an Iraq-bound flight would cause utter melt-down on the customer service side.

Posted in Americans, Amman, Arab world, Iraq, Jordan, travel | 1 Comment »

more presidential election coverage: Obama and Israel

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on November 12, 2008

In my previous post on the Arabic channels’ coverage of the US presidential election, I promised to look next at Al Jazeera.

And I will – but first, a quick post to include the image of “White House Race” that Arabiya, which in general has very strong digital graphics, super-imposed on a digitized image of the White House:

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To fill the long stretches of (very late-night, in the Arab world) time in which no state returns were being reported, Arabiya broadcast a re-cap of Obama’s July visit to Jordan and Israel, which came at the close of his larger trip to Afghanistan and Iraq.

The channel showed Obama addressing the international media in Amman and commented on what his positions vis-a-vis the Middle East and Israel were likely to be:

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I wish I could tell you exactly what the channel said, but I was so busy fussing with my camera in order to get footage of the broadcast feature that I was only half-listening. But since it was Arabiya, I assume it was fairly agnostic about the whole thing.

(The “breaking news” caption records Obama’s wins in Weeskounsin, Meesheeghan, and Mineesouta, and the numbers indicate that Obama had 103 electoral votes to McCain’s 34.)

Posted in Americans, Amman, Arab world, Arabic, Jordan, politics, television, words | Leave a Comment »

“The book ends differently than the movie”: Body of Lies

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 28, 2008

Those of you living in the United States have probably heard about the new Ridley Scott movie, Body of Lies. It came out earlier this month: another CIA-in-the-Middle-East adventure flick, starring Matt Damon and Russell Crowe.

You might not have wanted to see it in any case, given what the New York Times called its “grinding tedium”. And you may have been turned off by what even reviewers noted was an improbable romance between Damon’s character and a Jordan-based Iranian refugee nurse (They scoffed at the religious and cultural differences, but readers with experience in the region will be scratching their heads at the thought of Iranians in Jordan. The Iranian refugees I know all live in Damascus.)

Well, guess what? As my AP English literature teacher used to say in high school: the book ends differently than the movie. And in this case, the book begins and middles differently than the movie, too.

You will love this book. The characters are beautifully drawn – they come alive immediately. The region is aptly portrayed, with the minor exception of the one hospital scene, which takes place not in Amman but in Tripoli. (Who goes to Tripoli for non-emergency medical care, when Beirut is only two hours away?)

I’m not going to tell you the plot, but I am going to tell you that it is not only very different, but much better than the movie.

And I will give you a few hints.

First, the main character’s name is Roger Ferris.

Second, his dearly departed grandfather spoke very little and only vaguely about his origins in the “Balkan region” of the Ottoman Empire.

Third, the Jordanian mukhabarat plays a starring role – in a good way. (When asked about torture, the director says: we find torture incredibly ineffective. But we know our reputation, and we make use of it. The sounds of screaming in the prisons? All a recording.)

Fourth, there is romance and a strong woman character (woo hoo!), but she is not Iranian.

This is not an anti-American book, and it is not an anti-CIA book. It is a gripping read, and it offers something that we need to see much more of in contemporary American literature: Muslim heroes.

Posted in Americans, Arabic, books, citizenship, Damascus, espionage, family, home, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, politics, romance, Syria, words | 4 Comments »

the power of denial

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 24, 2008

One of the many valuable lessons my aunt IntXpatr has taught me is to look closely at statements of denial. This weekend, a denial issued by the Jordanian government has been making the rounds of regional news sources.

The Jordanian government wants everyone to know that it is NOT training the Hariri family’s Future Party in the use of military grade weapons. Reports to the contrary are ALL LIES.

And they probably are. I’ve heard rumors about this since last summer, but if they are true, the Jordanians have done an awful job. The Mustaqbalis do seem to know how to fire their guns, but judging by the altercations last weekend, their sense of strategy and tactics could use a major overhaul.

Still, the denial is both vague and definitive – a sure sign that someone has put a bee in the Jordanian bonnet. Here is the original article, from the government-friendly Jordan Times:

AMMAN (Petra) – The government on Thursday rejected as “baseless and incorrect” recent reports by newspapers and websites that Jordan supplied “Lebanese elements from the Future Movement” with weapons and supervised their training. In a statement carried by the Jordan News Agency, Petra, Minister of State for Media Affairs and Communications Nasser Judeh dismissed such reports as “fabricated and pure lies”, saying they target Jordan and its efforts to help preserve the security and stability of Lebanon.

Describing Jordan’s policy of “noninterference in the internal affairs of any state” as “consistent and plain”, Judeh said Jordan will always support and encourage dialogue among Lebanese political powers to reach agreements among themselves to safeguard Lebanon’s national unity and its higher interests.

He said the news reports’ allegations aimed to defame Jordan and undermine its support for the “brothers” in Lebanon and of helping them confront the dangers threatening their country.

Judeh appealed to the Lebanese people to confront attempts to fuel discord and “destabilise their country”.

He stressed that Jordan condemns such attempts, which, he said, are carried out to serve political agendas.

As the saying goes:

Denial: its not just a river in Egypt.

Posted in Jordan, Lebanon, politics | 1 Comment »

gassing up in Syria

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 13, 2008

Earlier this week, Iraq Directory published a translation of an al-Thawra article announcing that Syria is now charging market prices for gasoline for trucks crossing the border to Iraq. The price of gas in Syria is heavily subsidized: the article states that gas in Syria costs $.14/liter (yes, its the European system!) while market price is closer to $.80/liter.

Filling in the article’s gaps, I assume this means that these trucks typically fuel up at the Syrian side of the Syrian/Iraqi border, so they enjoy the subsidized prices and do not have to waste time (or put themselves at risk) stopping to fuel up in Iraq.

But why increase the price? I’m guessing that the answer has to do partly with finances, and partly with politics. Syria is running a major budget deficit this year, and I understand that proposals to cut the many subsidies that Syrians enjoy have been floated – and then rejected as politically untenable. Cutting the gas subsidy on trucks leaving the county won’t be anywhere as contentious as cutting the bread subsidy – or raising gas prices for ordinary Syrians.

I do not know for certain that Syria’s Iraqi borders see more truck crossings than any others – Lebanon’s export and trans-shipment economy depends heavily on Lebanese-Syrian land routes, for example. But any change in procedures on the Syrian side of the Lebanese border usually meets with a big outcry in Lebanon – as it did earlier this week. A slow-down that Syrian officials attributed to new security procedures set off anxious news reports on Future Television and passionate speechifying by the country’s political class.

As for the Syria’s Turkish and Jordanian borders, they seem occupied by other issues: Kurds and smuggling, respectively. So I imagine that targeting trucks at the Iraqi border was appealing as well because it promised the least political costs.

In any case, its interesting to see both the change in price and the fact that it was picked up as a news item of interest beyond the country’s borders. I love stories like this – under-reported administrative changes that slip through. I puzzle over them, like I puzzled over the story that the national Syrian football team had just hired, and then let go, new coach Antonio Cabrini.

Apparently Cabrini’s salary was to be paid directly by a Syrian company, but the national football federation decided that it should instead be paid indirectly through corporate sponsorships. And rather than this disagreement becoming the starting point for dialogue, it seems to have ended it – leaving the Syrians coach-less. Puzzling indeed. I’m sure there is a larger back story here, and I sure wish I knew it :)!

Posted in Arab world, economics, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, neighbors, politics, shipping, Syria, travel | Leave a Comment »

Economic Freedom

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on May 5, 2007

How free are you?

Economic freedom is “the freedom to engage in economic transactions, without government interference but with government support of the institutions necessary for that freedom, including the rule of law, sound money [i.e., a national currency carefully managed to prevent inflation], and open markets”. (Source: Deardorff’s Glossary of International Economics)

The results of the 2007 Index on Economic Freedom, which ranks 161 countries on the basis of how they perform in ten areas, have recently been released.

Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, the United States, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Ireland are the top seven, with freedom indices of 80% or higher. These are the world’s “free” countries, at least in economic terms.

Many Arab world states fall into the Index’s “moderately free” category, with indices ranging from 60.0 to 69.9% free:

Bahrain is #39/68.7%.

Jordan is #53/64% .

Oman is #54/63.9%

Kuwait is #57/63.7%.

Qatar is #72/60.7%.

The UAE is #74/60.4%.

Lebanon is #77/60.3%.

The Index defines states with indices from 50.0 to 59.9% as mostly unfree, including:

KSA is #85/59.1%.

Yemen is #122/53.8%.

Only Syria, at 142/48.2%, falls into the Index’s “repressed” category.

(Iraq is listed as unranked while Palestine is not listed.)

The Arab state rankings are interesting because they present several puzzles:

Why is the Emirates doing so well financially, while Bahrain is languishing, when their rankings suggest the reverse should be true? Economic freedom is important, but clearly by no means the sole determinant of a particular country’s business appeal.

As a follow-up, I note that Lebanon and the UAE differ by only 0.1%. Why is Lebanon languishing in such doldrums? During last month’s trip to Dubai, I spent considerable time thinking of the emirate as what-Lebanon-could-be if only its leaders had made smarter business decisions over the past fifteen years. This index makes me wonder what I am missing – whether even an incredibly transparent economic climate here could compensate for all the rotten politics.

What is little Oman up to, with its friendly business climate? I remember the country as being beautiful and the people warm and welcoming, but I know little about its business activities.

And finally, Syria. Two summers ago I attended a World Bank conference in Damascus, in which several Syrians became irate when the economists presenting their findings stated that Syria’s productivity levels are no higher than Yemen’s. Apparently, productivity was only the tip of the economic iceberg – Yemen is considerably more free than Syria. Certainly sectors of the Syrian economy – including the growing private sector – are booming today, but … what a damning statistic, to see the country ranked 20 below any other Arab state and 70 or 90 below its immediate neighbors.

A bit of background information on the Index:

Research for the Index is undertaken by the Heritage Foundation, a major pro-free enterprise Washington think tank, and the Wall Street Journal. Both the foundation and the paper have a small government and highly capitalist bent, but also a commitment to accuracy. In other words, the Index is created by organizations with a particular vision, but the research is still good, as long as you remember that the economic freedom measured here is more relevant to entrepreneurs and business owners than wage workers.

The Index’s website lists the ten freedoms under consideration and defines them as follows:

  • Business freedom is the ability to create, operate, and close an enterprise quickly and easily. Burdensome, redundant regulatory rules are the most harmful barriers to business freedom.
  • Trade freedom is a composite measure of the absence of tariff and non-tariff barriers that affect imports and exports of goods and services.
  • Monetary freedom combines a measure of price stability with an assessment of price controls. Both inflation and price controls distort market activity. Price stability without microeconomic intervention is the ideal state for the free market.
  • Freedom from government is defined to include all government expenditures—including consumption and transfers—and state-owned enterprises. Ideally, the state will provide only true public goods, with an absolute minimum of expenditure.
  • Fiscal freedom is a measure of the burden of government from the revenue side. It includes both the tax burden in terms of the top tax rate on income (individual and corporate separately) and the overall amount of tax revenue as portion of GDP.
  • Property rights is an assessment of the ability of individuals to accumulate private property, secured by clear laws that are fully enforced by the state.
  • Investment freedom is an assessment of the free flow of capital, especially foreign capital.
  • Financial freedom is a measure of banking security as well as independence from government control. State ownership of banks and other financial institutions such as insurer and capital markets is an inefficient burden, and political favoritism has no place in a free capital market.
  • Freedom from corruption is based on quantitative data that assess the perception of corruption in the business environment, including levels of governmental legal, judicial, and administrative corruption.
  • Labor freedom is a composite measure of the ability of workers and businesses to interact without restriction by the state.

Posted in Americans, Arab world, economics, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, media, news, politics, Qatar, research | Leave a Comment »

Gemmayze

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 18, 2007

My friend S has a theory as to why Gemmayze is such a hotspot in Beirut. Its not the ambience or the location – its the name.

“Jum-MAY-zee”, he says, emphasizing the hard “J” in the way of Jordanians who haven’t adopted the “zh” of francophone Arabia.

He may be right – I certainly do like the way it rolls off my tongue.

And yesterday evening I liked the way it welcomed me and my friend M, newly returned from a long stint in the Gulf, to “our” bar, where the waitstaff all share the same name and a little discreet pouting always gets us our favorite table.

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Gemmayze Street

(technically named Gouraud, after one of the Mandate-era high commissioners, while the actual Gemmayze Street is a small side street that no one knows)

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my handbag, ready for a glass of wine

 

Posted in Americans, Arab world, Arabic, Beirut, friends, Jordan, Lebanon, London, neighbors, nightlife, photography, women | Leave a Comment »

Putting safety last: Jordan’s new tax law

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 14, 2007

This article breaks my heart. The Jordanian monarchy expends great time, effort, and money to convince the world that it is forward thinking and Western looking.

But what kind of government institutes a car tax that discourages consumers from buying cars with safety features?

A tax on luxury cars? fine.

But a tax that targets safety devices? What kind of government does this to its citizens?

(MENAFN – Jordan Times) AMMAN — A government decision to apply sales tax and other tariffs on vehicle safety devices has already raised car prices and will surely hamper efforts to improve the Kingdom’s road safety record, car dealers and citizens said Thursday.

The decision, which went into effect Wednesday, has caused a rise, ranging from JD200 to JD6,000, in the prices of new cars and will also affects the prices of used cars, several car dealers told The Jordan Times.

Citizens with limited incomes looking for cars worth around JD12,000 will have now to pay around JD1,000 extra. “If they want to save this amount, they would opt to buy a car with less specifications, particularly those pertaining to safety, such as ABS (anti-lock brake system) and airbags,” said Abu Khaled, who works at an auto agency on western Amman’s Wadi Saqra Street, criticising the decision which he said caused confusion in the market.

Head of the customs office at the Zarqa Duty Free area, Mahmoud Dweiri, said the rise in car prices ranges from JD200 and JD2,000.

Dweiri told the Jordan News Agency, Petra, that luxury cars usually have more safety measures and thus will have a considerable rise in their prices.

Director of Al Abrar Wal Rafidain Clearance Agency at the free zone, Mohammad Abul Tayyeb, agreed, but said that the rise in prices exceeds JD2,000 for some brands, particularly large four-wheel drive cars.

Mohammad Hassanein, an Egyptian worker at a car agency, said several cars on sale at his company went up by around JD6,000.

The government on Tuesday decided that safety devices installed on vehicles should be subject to sales tax and unified tariffs starting from Wednesday. This decision suspended a previous one dated September 24, 2006, which exempted these devices from sales tax. The new decision was based on a recommendation by the Jordan Customs Department (JCD), which indicated that these devices have become essential for all vehicles and are no longer optional.

Among the devices that are included in the decision are the ABS, airbags, anti-pollution systems, anti-skip systems and many others.

The Car Agents Association on Thursday called on the government to reconsider its decision and to discuss it with all concerned parties.

Leading car brand agents in the capital disagreed with the JCD. “The agents can ask the manufacturer to exclude some of the safety devices,” sales manager in the Ole Group, a leading car brands agent in the Kingdom, Majdi Nashashibi, told the Jordan Times, without specifying any of these devices.

“Over the past two days, the number of visitors to our showrooms declined sharply,” Nashashibi told The Jordan Times Thursday evening. He claimed that “the decision will reflect on the public more than us,” adding that citizens will have to pay more for their vehicles.

He also said the decision will prompt agents to import more vehicles with fewer safety devices to maintain their sales level, which would reflect on safety levels on the road.

Mohammad Salameh said he was looking for a car with all safety devices, but after the new decision, he is now focusing more on the price of the car.

“I am looking for a car worth around JD12,000 and dealers were telling me that I should’ve come earlier this week because I would have saved some JD1,000,” Salameh, an employee at a private company, lamented, while walking between shiny cars lined up in front of a car dealership.

As for the safety devices, 42-year-old Salameh said: “God is my sole protector.”

“The government doesn’t care for people’s safety, it only cares about getting money out of their pockets,” he complained.

Road accidents continue to be one of the leading causes of death in the country. According to police statistics, around 18,000 people have been killed in road accidents over the past 20 years.

According to Traffic Department figures, 865 people were killed last year.

Around 18,000 people were injured during the same year in over 80,000 accidents that cost the country around JD250 million in losses annually, Jamil Mujahed, head the Road Safety Youth Fund, told The Jordan Times in a recent interview.

Last month, the Jordan Insurance Federation, dealing with compulsory insurance for motor vehicles, reported a JD12 million loss during 2006 due to the increase in the number of accidents.

Posted in Amman, Arab world, citizenship, economics, family, Jordan | 2 Comments »

what’s in a name: adventures in mis-hearing

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 16, 2007

Last Saturday night I spent a very enjoyable evening dining out with a group of six, a mixture of friends and acquaintances.

Somehow the talk turned to Palestine – more specifically, crossing the Allenby Bridge from Jordan. Since most of our table was Lebanese, the conversation was largely theoretical, with each one imagining the problems they would have in passing.

I would love to go, said the woman at the other end of the table, but there is no way. The Israelis would never let me in, because of who my father is.

Naturally, someone followed up on this cliffhanger by asking: and who is your father?

Emile Lahoud, she answered.

Or, at least, this is what I heard from my perch at the opposite end of the table in this very crowded, very loud restaurant.

I was very impressed with the sangfroid of our table. No one batted an eye at this revelation.

On the contrary – H, who was seated next to me, leaned over and began discussing family connections with her. H’s second cousin was friends with her aunt, or something like that.

Meanwhile, I began looking more carefully at her face. To me, President Lahoud looks much like the Jo ker from Batman.

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Mmm, I thought. Lucky her – she must take after her mother.

The conversation continued, drifting off into other subjects. I began to wonder whether perhaps my tablemates weren’t a bit too sanguine about the pedigree of the woman seated with us.

Is Lebanon such a small country that even celebrities are linked by the chain of personal connections – family, friends, and ancestral villages? Was I the only one surprised that the daughter of such a controversial figure should be out roaming the city streets with no security or physical protection? And why would Israel care so much about Lahoud?

Seeking clarification, I leaned over to H and asked, So how are you too connected? And what family is she from?

Oh, H answered, her father is Mr Xxxxxxxxxxxx. He was very active in the Palestinian movement.

Ohhhhhhhhhh, I thought. Her father’s name meant nothing to me – I can’t even remember it now – which itself meant two things.

One: our tablemate wasn’t the daughter of Emile Lahoud.

Two: I am going deaf.

Posted in Americans, Arabic, Beirut, family, food, friends, humor, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, neighbors, nightlife, Palestine, parenting, words | Leave a Comment »