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Libyans in Amman

8 February 2012

Last month I had an email from a hotelier friend in Jordan, bemoaning a drop in occupancy rates – down in his hotel from 64% in 2010 to 44% last year – and mentioning, in passing, the quantity of Libyans now staying full-board at hotels in Amman.

Libyans? At hotels in Amman?

When I got to Jordan I made a few phone calls. It seemed to me there was an untold story there. I was lucky enough to be able to discuss it with Jordan’s Minister of Tourism, Nayef Al Fayez, and the president of the Jordan Hotel Association, Michel Nazzal, who both kindly took time out of their schedules to meet me.

Then, with the help of the remarkable, and remarkably generous, Lina Ejeilat, editor-in-chief at Jordan’s 7iber.com, I managed to find and interview some of the Libyans receiving treatment in Amman’s Jordan Hospital.

This photo (above) shows Ali Muhammad Albusaifi, 24, who’d spent most of 2011 fighting Gaddafi’s forces and was now recuperating from leg injuries. “I want to keep on fighting. I just don’t know who,” he told me.

This photo (above) is of his friend Muftah Al Sadeq Belhaish, 23, a unit commander from the Jabal Nafusa mountains of western Libya, who’d been shot through the shoulder early in the conflict but had never received proper treatment, and had fought on for another 9 months.

Lina and I talked to them (and other patients) for some time. What these young men went through doesn’t bear thinking about. Their courage and resilience is exceptional.

I wrote a script for BBC radio’s From Our Own Correspondent.

The item aired on Radio 4 in the UK on 26th January - click here for my bit – and globally on the BBC World Service one day later. I am pasting the transcript below. I hope you like it.

For hoteliers in the Jordanian capital Amman, January can be miserable. It’s the lowest of low seasons for Western tourists, who prefer the temperate months of spring and autumn. And long-stay Arab tourists, who escape the heat of the Gulf to spend cooler summer holidays near the Med, won’t arrive for another six months.

Yet this week, even in the depths of winter, the smiles are broad all across Jordan’s hospitality sector, thanks to an unexpected Libyan windfall.

Amman is a highland city. When I drove in from the airport it was not so much raining as condensing: the misty air was grey and saturated, and it was bitter cold, high above sea level amid precipitous urban hills.

The lobby of my hotel was steamy and crowded with pretty scruffy-looking characters, lounging in tracksuits on the sleek, ultra-modern furniture, arguing in an accented Arabic I couldn’t place.

“We are suffering a bit,” hotel manager Ibrahim Karajeh told me. “These Libyans are not well educated and they talk loudly – but they’re making good revenue. This is very low season for us but I’m having to turn business away.”

Jordan was a key Arab ally for Libya’s rebel armies during last year’s revolution, supplying logistical and military aid. Now, it seems, payback time has come. Lacking both hospital infrastructure and medical expertise, post-war Libya is flying thousands of its citizens abroad for treatment, including at Jordanian hospitals, widely regarded as the best in the Middle East. Medical bills, lodging and three meals a day are being paid for by Libya’s new government, the National Transitional Council. Officials tour Amman weekly, settling hotel and hospital bills in cash – and handing out $300 (roughly £190) per person per week as pocket money.

The arrangement began last summer, for fighters who had been seriously injured in combat – but the trickle has become a flood since the death of Colonel Gaddafi three months ago.

I sat in on a discussion between Michel Nazzal, president of the Jordan Hotel Association, and Nayef Al Fayez, Jordan’s Minister of Tourism. Every three-, four- and five-star hotel in the capital is full. 26 planes arrived last week from Libya. Amman, they told me, is hosting 14,000 Libyans.

But the minister is not complaining. “We need them!” he said, with a genial smile. “It’s good for business.”

That’s undeniable. I would estimate Libya is pumping around £10m ($15m) a week into the Jordanian retail economy. That excludes income from hospital bills, which could also be substantial.

In a modest, resource-poor country which saw a 40% drop in tourism last year, that’s no small windfall. According to hotelier Charl Twal, the Libyans are “saving Amman”.

Across town in the private, 300-bed Jordan Hospital, administrator Amany Khatab told me since November they’d treated 465 Libyans as inpatients – but many more as outpatients. “Minor cases would have surgery during the day,” she explained, “then go back to the hotel, and return next morning.”

She walked me along broad, brightly lit corridors, spotless and quiet. Doctors smiled in greeting.

At bed 128 on the 1st floor, 62-year-old Saleh Muhammad Suleiman passed a tired hand over a white beard. He’d arrived three weeks earlier from his home in the eastern Libyan city of Tobruk for treatment for chronic hypertension. “We were relying on foreign doctors,” he told me. “But they all went home during the war.”

Two of Suleiman’s sons fought against Gaddafi. “Libya has a good future,” he said, gesturing with his cannulated right hand. “The people running the government are young. They know what is best.”

On another corridor, Ali Muhammad Albusaifi was on crutches. His leg had been fractured in Zawiya, early in the fighting. Then he’d fought in Zintan, before spending the summer smuggling weapons into government-held Tripoli. “We’d come in at night,” the 24-year-old told me, “bringing guns in rubbish bins or under cars.”

Then, in October, in Bani Walid, his convoy had taken a direct hit. He’d been thrown high in the air, landing on rocks, breaking his nose and teeth, damaging his hearing and tearing muscles in both legs.

“It’s a fantastic feeling,” he said, with a hollow-eyed smile. “But we never imagined any of this before.”

What had life been like under Gaddafi, I asked.

“I don’t want to rewind,” he said, gazing at the floor. “We have strong national bonds –” and he twined his fingers together to demonstrate. Then he shrugged angrily, a mixed-up young man, who’d already seen too much violence in his life.

With pathos, and some despair, he added, “I want to keep on fighting. I just don’t know who.”

Even though Libya is successfully outsourcing treatment, healing, it seems, must start at home.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. 8 February 2012 5.23pm

    This is a huge windfall for the Jordan hotels who had a very bad season last year, to the point where several were contemplating closing. But it’s spreading. Matthew mentions the upper grade hotels, the one and two stars are now concerned, and several have signed contracts for six months for the totality of their rooms.

    Hotels in Madaba are all “in” on the deal, and I understand that Libya is trying to recruit hoteliers as far away asWadi Mousa.

    So what is going to happen in April when the tourists (hopefully) arrive? Many of the hotels who have signed up with the Libyans already had bookings for tourists groups, but they are unwilling to trust these bookings, since a tour agency can cancel without penalty a week ahead. Last year many of them did so, and the hotels are unwilling to risk the same thing happening this year again.

    They are also accepting bookings from individual travellers, with the intention of passing them on to other hotels. But there aren’t all that many hotels around who have not accepted Libyans, so what is going to happen?

    Libyans needing any medical treatment, not just the more severe cases cited by Matthew, are arriving – and are bringing wives and children with them. Somebody needing a tooth extracted can come with half a dozen children; the incentive is there, since they ALL receive the $300 pocket money. Incidentally there is a movement around claiming that this is not enough and new patients are demanding that this be increased to $1000 – the wives want to go shopping, apparently.

    It is a pity too, that the ambulatory patients, of whom there are a great many, are completely uninterested in visiting the tourist sites of Jordan, and spend their free time in the hotel lobby, when they are not in the Malls of Amman.

  2. 8 February 2012 5.43pm

    It’s a good thing for our hospitality sector and a good thing for the Libyan fighters. Soon though, tourists will begin to move. What will happen to the tourism sector when tourists are unable to find hotels and decide to vacation in other areas? What of local prices on other goods that are being artificially raised due to the influx of money? An already struggling segment of society will be left with to deal with the higher costs of living when the government supported Libyans have gone home. To be sure, this situation is a double-edged sword and while one sector is enjoying the boom, the rest of society is suffering even more. God be with the fighters. God be with us all.

  3. robina creaser permalink
    22 February 2012 11.50am

    Jesus wept – hotel revenues ?
    100,000 dead Libyans, over 1 million African refugees have had to flee the racist pogroms, a country at the mercy of gun-crazed hooligans, looting raping and killing.

    Get help, please.

  4. 28 February 2012 7.50pm

    Fascinating comments, Ruth and Jim – many thanks for dropping by.

    And thanks, Robina, I do have plenty of help already. Jesus did indeed weep.

  5. Hal permalink
    5 March 2012 11.07pm

    Fascinating news story that has a wider human dimension beyond the tourism angle, just great insightful and moving reporting by Matthew. So much of what we read in the MSM is just the current headline of the day and the aftermath, the outcome of wider events in individual human terms and lives remains frequently unreported. Stellar reporting in the best sense here – so, thank you. You demonstrate again what writing online can and should aspire to be.

  6. 6 March 2012 7.42am

    Many thanks, Hal. Much appreciated. However, I wrote this on commission for MSM; if I hadn’t been lucky enough to have a paid outlet at the BBC, I wouldn’t have pursued the story. This was writing for radio, not writing online.

    But thank you anyway.

  7. Hal permalink
    7 March 2012 8.21pm

    I should have qualified that when using the MSM term – way too general, and especially since I read BBC online daily and likewise watch BBC America weekdays. But having said which, I think they do a great job in following up in the wake of major world events, long after the “superstar” reporter types have departed home when the story’s not hot anymore. Is there a sequel down the line – at least on your blog – as far as following up later on how the Jordanians managed to accommodate the usual seasonal tourist influx along with the still-present Libyans?

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