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A View from Amman

Or How Not to<br>Read the Signs
Col. (ret. ) Peter W. Reynolds 15 November 2005

Dear Colleagues,


Col. (ret.) Peter Reynolds, a graduate of Sandhurst, has recently joined our Advisory Council as an International Associate. He has just accepted a three month consultancy with UNOPS in Amman and Baghdad to help in the work of ensuring that the next round of Iraqi elections in December run smoothly. He arrived in Amman just before the recent round of terror attacks. The following is a first hand, and very witty, account of what goes on in that part of the world.


Col. Reynolds’ distinguished career began with extensive service in the British Army of the Rhine in Germany.  Promoted to Major in 1983, he went on to serve as Second-in-Command of the 32nd Heavy Regiment Royal Artillery in the Gulf War. After the war he served in the Ministry of Defence in London. In 1998 he deployed on a six month operational tour to Sarajevo. His last military appointment was Director of Public Affairs at  NATO Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe.


He has spent the last few years in the United States and maintains strong links with the military by lecturing to senior NATO officers on media and psychological operations. His consulting work also includes lecturing in field security and stress management. Most recently he has completed the OSCE training course organised by the Foreign and Commonwealth office and has been involved in EU crisis management assessment. His analysis of the failure of European Political Union appears in the forthcoming issue of the Institute’s journal BARRICADES,



It should have been obvious. Perhaps it really was a prophetic indicator of things to come. Unfortunately I did not get the hint and sat quietly on the aeroplane for two hours at Heathrow as baggage handlers unloaded and loaded the plane a couple of times to check that the numbers of bags in the hold matched the numbers on the manifest. After this little delay we were up and away into the night sky, darkness having fallen while we were parked at Gate 1c.


Several hours later as I am hunched up in my economy seat towards the back of the plane, we landed in Beirut for a quick stopover before continuing to Amman. The aircraft almost emptied and this should have been another clue but no, once again I failed to heed the signs. The only people who were now on Flight BA9535 were a couple of guys with large biceps who would have been wearing sunglasses, had it been daylight and two ladies of Far Eastern European/Central Asian appearance wearing far too much make-up. The rest, and it was a small rest, were returning Harrods shoppers encumbered with innumerable bags and cases containing everything that the average Jordanian household really needs from the UK’s premier retailer.


Having taken off from Beirut we appeared to be heading to Cyprus in an attempt to avoid any unpleasantness over the Beka valley or further South before turning once more for the final approach into Amman.


The subtlety of placing the money exchange at the exit gate before being faced with a demand for 10 Jordanian Dollars in exchange for a stamp in the passport escaped me at first, but I soon found out and then spent some time in queues that moved very slowly at 2 a.m. It is unfortunate that my employer had failed to ensure a driver would actually appear. But no matter, after waiting for 20 minutes I threw myself into a taxi and heading for the Hotel Amwra or Crowne Plaza as it is known in English. Sadly, no room had been booked either, and even now premonition had not struck, so money changed hands and I had a bed for the night.




The same morning after some three hours rest I attended an eight a.m. conference on the joys of running a referendum and the preparations for the next round of elections in Iraq. Happily it finished just a little early and we had time to get back to the UNOPS villa and email, which enabled me to satisfy my craving for electronic contact with the real world.


Life seemed ok by now. There was the promise of a beer in the not too distant future and I headed down to the Grenadier Bar as arranged with the rest of the conference attendees who were scattered around various hotels in Amman. We duly met and drank and ordered curry as CNN broke the news that one or two of our party might have difficulty getting to their beds that night. Most of you will know the rest, it having been covered comprehensively by the world’s media, suffice it to say, we stayed in the bar as security arrangements were made and alternative accommodations found for those affected.


I checked out of the Crowne Plaza in double quick time around about midnight and headed for a private villa on the edge of town to spend the night with another of our tribe at the home of a locally engaged expatriate Irish lady and her family.


You will be happy to know that I have moved again and am now ensconced with a friend at his palatial villa next to the Prime Ministry in Amman surrounded by a steel cordon of serious Jordanian security forces and I do not intend to move until Sunday. Amman has been closed. It is shut. Schools are empty, offices are locked and the weekend is coming soon.




Another beautiful daybreak over the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and joy of joys the hot water is back on. This means that showering is no longer a life-changing experience. The down side is that the water tank on the roof has been leaking since yesterday afternoon.


Water only runs five days a week and this means that every house has a storage facility under ground from where it is piped to another tank on the roof. Thence it disappears into the heating and water system. In our case the pump at roof level had sprung a leak and at the rate it was pumping water we were in danger of using all the reserves overnight.


I left the house before the extended negotiations with the landlady started and caught my usual taxi on the corner of the Imperial Hotel. This time I was ready. Arabic phrasebook in hand, we departed in the general direction of work and using known landmarks swiftly arrived at the office.




As organizations grow, they evolve and they do so in a number of predictable ways. Small organizations are adaptable, flexible and fast moving, they grow organically; large organizations are ponderous beasts, beset by stifling rules and regulations that can defeat the bravest spirits. Thus it was with apprehension I gave myself over to the task of obtaining a UN ID card. I was promised that it would be a matter of minutes. Fat chance!


The car ride to the other side of town took 20 minutes, the entry procedure took another ten, while bags were searched, passports handed over and cell phones checked. Then it was finally off to the Pass Office. I was told “Where is your request? I can do nothing without a request. And it has to be signed by a specific person.”


We moved on to the next building to find the specific person. He was kind enough to print off a blank form and I filled in my name, date of birth and blood group (How very comforting that was!). Sadly the form was incomplete and even the specific expert failed to spot his own mistake, and so we headed back to the Pass Office, totally oblivious of our omission.


“Oh what a shame, you do not have a number in this box. I can not process this request without a number in this box.” At least this time two phone calls sufficed and I was off, picture taken, picture approved, signature electronically recorded and again approved by me and then the fatal words “It will be ready in an hour. It is my lunch break”.


You will understand my reluctance to depart since the printers were on and ready to go, my information was in the machine, binaries were ready to be converted to dots and letters on a plastic card and then handed to me. But the determination shone through and I gave up and was out of there. There is no point arguing with a hungry female.


Round about this time, four ladies from the UNHCR arrived. The ladies had had a long morning and looked ready for lunch. Funny that, because at that very moment the hungry lady appeared and rushed past me to the guard to welcome the ladies by telling them they would have to go away. Proper procedure had not been followed and the wrong person had called and would they come back tomorrow, and anyway she was going to lunch now, “Good bye”. Somewhat stunned the ladies departed and were still standing at the side of the road some ten minutes later. Their transport had departed and they were still speechless. I decided a jocular aside would not play well here and indeed might cause physical injury, which would be counted as self-inflicted and thus not comply with the UN insurance policy terms and conditions, in case hospital treatment was required.




The next day, as soon as I stepped in the shower, I knew this was not going to be a good day. The water was cold once more and I was not a happy man as I headed for the forecourt of the Imperial Palace Hotel to pick up my taxi.


The tourists must have been feeling safe again because this morning the busses were waiting outside the Imperial ready to be filled with a motley collection of nationalities of advanced years preparing for the six hour ride to Petra, or the Dead Sea which is only an hour away. Once again, I kept a low profile catching my morning taxi to the office and my grasp of right, left and straight on in Arabic must be improving since we got there in double quick time.


Having attempted to persuade the driver to turn on the meter when we set off, he painfully explained that it was broken and pushed various buttons to reinforce his point. As I am now aware of what the cost should be, I was prepared to go along with him. I just could not face the prospect of exiting the vehicle in the middle of the road and then taking my chances with traffic while attempting to reach the safety of the sidewalk. You may recall that the traffic here is different. This may also explain the lack of bicycles. I have not seen a single one since my arrival.




The working day commenced with the usual greetings of one and all. Sadly this was followed by a second trip to Pass Office. “Why would you want to put yourself through this?” you ask. Well, it turns out that there are too many letters on my pass and three need to be cut. Ali, the UN driver, looks 14, drives like a sixteen year old, may be 19 but nobody is quite sure.


The lady who lunches was in outstanding form and having made me jump hoops on my previous visit she was magnanimous in victory and inflicted her particular regulations on the poor unfortunate who followed me into her domain. I should also explain, that I was ready this time. The forms were present, they were correctly filled in and I admired her porcelain teddy bear while she rummaged through her database. Sadly I would have to wait two hours; I was accorded the special privilege of being present at the almost instant birth of my new card as it spewed from the machine. Having dispatched the poor man, I was given the extraordinary privilege of being personally escorted to the transport office so that I could attempt to gain my UN driving licence.


I need to explain the reason for this. It would appear that I had the choice of where to take the test; it was either in Amman or Baghdad, and in Baghdad the examiner takes one round the streets of the city. It does not take the brains of a Secretary State to understand that I opted for Amman and so it was there that I ended up in the back of a 20ft container on the outskirts of that city, filling in another set of forms, photocopying ID card and UK driving licence and psyching myself to remember “Mirror, signal, turn.”


The examiner opened the vehicle and handed over the keys and asked me to pull out of the parking space following the arrows out of the small compound. We exited the main gate and turned left onto the open road. Three hundred yards away was a roundabout. I was asked to reverse my direction and indicated to initiate the manoeuvre. I completed the manoeuvre and was faced by a medium sized cardboard box in the road. Being in a sizeable 4*4 I proceeded to drive over this non-obstacle. What a mistake to make!


The box caught the front bumper and began to drag noisily along the road, refusing to release its grip. My examiner indicated that it might be a good idea to pull over and remove the offending item and I proceeded to indicate my intention to pull over to the right hand side of the road. I stopped and prepared to leap from my seat. Too late, my examiner swiftly exited, removed the offending item and we were off; straight into the compound whence we had originated some two minutes (including stop) before.


“You have passed”, he said. It was obvious that my use of the turn indicators was the sole thing that impressed him; not my use of the clutch or the fact that I passed the steering wheel through my hands rather than crossing the hands when turning. You will recall that in Amman, the use of the indicator (turn signals for my North American readers) is optional – truth be told it is probably considered rather wimpish, since the use of the horn achieves the same effect.


The rest of the form was completed and I headed back to the Pass Office. I was prepared for the worst and expected to come back in two hours to collect my licence. Not a bit of it. By this time we were almost on first name terms and the machine issued the card in less than the blink of an eye and we headed back to work.


I do not know why anyone would call it “Lunch-time traffic”. The word traffic is defined in Merriam-Webster as: “the movement (as of vehicles or pedestrians) through an area or along a route or : the vehicles, pedestrians, ships, or planes moving along a route”. You see, it includes a reference to movement. Well, in Amman it should be known as the “lunch-time parking” because that is what we did today. We parked for ages attempting to get to the bank.




The concept of the exploitation of a nation’s “soft power” is a concept I first ran across in a paper by Keogh and Nye published in an academic journal some years ago. In this case it has certainly worked in Jordan which hosts more MacDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets than you can shake a stick at. Sadly Pepsi is the drink of choice here but Coca-Cola does run a close second, I think.


Peter Reynolds



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