Libyans in Amman

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, 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.