The Most Prestigious Address in Amman, Jordan

Not long after he ascended to the throne in 1999, King Abdullah II began a project of economic development and reform in Jordan. Following the suggestions of his economic advisors as well as the recommendations of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, the king privatized national industries to remake the country into a regional destination for economic investment. Amman, the capital, was central to his vision for a new Jordan. With Bahaa Hariri, the multibillionaire developer and son of former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, as an initial partner, Abdullah began to conceptualize a “new downtown” for Amman. It would be a space that would put the city on the global map as a tourist destination, and in turn bring desperately needed business and foreign investment to Jordan. With this promise of prosperity the Abdali Project, a semi-public mega-development project was born.

The branding of Abdali as an elite space is executed through language.

I study this project and the rapid alteration of Amman’s urban space through the language employed by developers and the state as they work to create this new downtown. At the same time, my work questions how discourses about urban development contribute to the creation of a carefully curated urban space that is accessible primarily to the elite, and not the majority of people who call Amman home. Through this analytic lens, I show how the transformation of Jordan’s economy is more rhetoric than actual development.

Built on military land that once housed the headquarters of Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate, also known as the “fingernail factory” out of which Jordan’s secret police operated, Abdali was conceived as a five billion-dollar mega-development of retail, business, and residential space. Through revisions to tax codes, land laws, and zoning ordinances, the state opened the door to foreign investors looking to make a profit in Abdali. However, as many Jordanians I spoke to were quick to point out, from its initial conception to its current construction, Abdali resembles Dubai far more than anything in Amman. It is a project fueled by ideas about eliteness and distinction, and since its inception has alienated most Ammanis from their city. Abdali is of course not the only controversial space in the city: Amman’s Abdoun neighborhood and the city’s many shopping malls also represent prominent sites where residents are segregated by class. What sets Abdali apart, however, is that the state is actively involved in the project and has promoted Abdali as a symbol of what it hopes all of Amman will become.

Language is a central component of how the Abdali Project is marketed to potential buyers, visitors, and the local and foreign investors whom the state hopes will continue to put their faith in the project. The state and Abdali’s private developers have labeled the project as a “new downtown” for Amman, despite the fact there is a vibrant downtown area a few miles away. As several people have told me, one of the most frustrating aspects of the project for Amman is that Abdali erases the legacy of the city’s historic center, as Abdali is marketed as the “optimum address for work, living, and entertainment.”

Photograph of a brightly lit boulevard at night.
Image description: Buildings, trees, and outdoor restaurant seating stretch along a boulevard. A few people walk down the boulevard, others are seated along it, and strings of lights hang overhead.
Caption: Abdali Boulevard During Ramadan.
William M. Cotter

State-of-the-art technology and environmentally friendly design promote Abdali as the future of Amman. It signals to the world that Jordan is open for business, while at the same time, it is reforming its economy to encourage private sector growth and foreign investment. These are two things that the IMF has said Jordan needs in order to deal with its struggling economy. However, these moves by the state and its partners gloss over an important aspect of Abdali: although developers present it as a home for consumers of luxury and a safe investment, the language used by developers and the state belie the reality that much of the project remains an unrealized dream. Although the project does not yet resemble the sites of developmental failure that have occurred elsewhere in the region (e.g., Dreamland in Cairo), much of the infrastructure is not built, or partially completed. A handful of the skyscrapers have been constructed, along with The Boulevard, Abdali’s luxury pedestrian area, and Abdali Mall. But a large portion of the project is still under construction. The interiors remain unfinished in those buildings that have been completed. When one walks Abdali’s streets, construction material litters the ground and the walls of many of the buildings in the project are covered in graffiti: far from the optimum address for work, living, and entertainment.

Despite the completion of some of its key anchor properties, much of Abdali currently exists as a plausible fiction. It is a fiction that is propagated by real estate developers and the state as it continues to uphold Abdali as a symbol of Jordan’s economic aspirations. This fiction is dependent in no small part on continued investment by transnational capitalist firms, developers, and the local and global elite who will eventually call Abdali home. The branding of Abdali as an elite space is executed through language. It is through the branding Abdali as “downtown,” a “hub” for transnational business, a space of “luxury,” and the most “prestigious” address in the city that developers hope to realize the project’s economic potential even though many of the buildings are empty shells. It is through these discourses that the government articulates its vision for continued economic reform.

Throughout Jordan’s recent economic uncertainty, Abdali has dominated the skyline of Amman as a symbol of what the state believes the future of economic reform should be in Jordan.

By crafting and branding Abdali as an elite space of capitalist consumption and a centerpiece of Jordan’s development goals, these discourses aide the state in creating what Hannah Appel has called “performative representations” of Jordan’s economy, visible to everyone in Amman. As Appel highlights, these representations ultimately allow objects like national economies to take form and exercise their power. Abdali represents both the state’s vision for Jordan’s economic future, while also providing discursive space for the state to sidestep Jordan’s domestic economic reality of widespread unemployment, dependency on foreign aid, and a substantial debt burden. The Abdali project allows the state to say Jordan is on the “right” economic track.

Luring in the wealthiest investors with images of prestige and luxury, the state and developers use language to actively further neoliberal development in Amman. Additional luxury developments proliferate in other areas of the city. But as Eliana Abu-Hamdi has noted, this type of development was never for the majority of Amman’s residents, and was ultimately conceived in a way that actively excluded them. The exclusion of most of the residents of Amman has  become more visible in recent years. Throughout the summer of 2018, work in Abdali continued apace while Jordanians protested the government’s proposed tax law that was enthusiastically supported by the IMF. A proposal for a revised tax law was unveiled in November 2018 but only brought about renewed protests. As police forces fired tear gas at protesters demonstrating outside the prime minister’s office in December 2018, a mile away wealthy Jordanians and expatriates celebrated Christmas in Abdali.

Throughout Jordan’s recent economic uncertainty, Abdali has dominated the skyline of Amman as a symbol of what the state believes the future of economic reform should be in Jordan. That future is packaged, sold, and delivered in language that casts Abdali as a space steeped in eliteness. At the same time, language allows the state to articulate its vision for how economic reform will be realized in Amman. This vision continues to marginalize working class Jordanians as wealthy investors and the state ensure their own future well-being.

William M. Cotter is a joint PhD candidate in anthropology and linguistics at the University of Arizona. His dissertation research focuses on language, political economy, and urban development in Amman, Jordan. This work was funded by the National Science Foundation and US Student Fulbright Program. You can follow him on twitter at: @cotterw

Cite as: Cotter, William M. 2020. “The Most Prestigious Address in Amman, Jordan.” Anthropology News website, July 2, 2020. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1454

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