Amid Baghdad's gridlock, auto dealer is on easy street
By Hal Bernton
Seattle Times staff reporter
|THOMAS JAMES HURST / THE SEATTLE TIMES|
|Customers check out the used cars at Adnan Market in Baghdad while car-lot workers touch up and wax vehicles that will go up for sale.|
BAGHDAD, Iraq Once a month, Salman Abdul Hussain crosses into Amman, Jordan, to buy used cars for export back home. He prefers Daewoo and Hyundai, utilitarian models that are hot sellers in a city undergoing an epic expansion in individual mobility.
Hussain is one of a thousand entrepreneurs cashing in on Baghdad's cultural boom in these heady economic days following the ouster of this nation's former dictator.
Some salesmen take to the streets, hawking their cars one at a time to passers-by. The 39-year-old Hussain is more established, having sold cars for more than a decade. He works in the Adnan Market, which he shares with several other car dealers. There's no showroom, just a parking lot full of cars. Across the street are vacant lots and a bombed-out building. But all the dealers on the lot are dressed well, with leather or wool coats and polished boots.
Car sales have been spurred by the elimination of heavy taxes and import restrictions, Hussain said. That's made cars one of the few major purchases that cost less now in the new Iraq. And even in a city suffering from massive unemployment and poverty, there appears to be plenty of pent-up demand.
"Now, it is much cheaper, and people want to buy them," Hussain said.
Some of the buyers have stashed away savings, with families pooling their cash to meet the purchase price, Hussain said.
Some buyers have benefited from money sent into the country from relatives living elsewhere in the world. And some earlier this year reaped sizeable windfalls from looting, and now have enough cash to buy a car.
Under the old regime, Hussain said he might sell one or two cars a week. Now he says he typically sells up to 10 cars a week. His recent offerings ranged from a 1994 Daewoo priced at $2,700 to a 2001 Kia at $7,000. Before the war, with all the taxes, Hussain said, the Daewoo might have cost more than $5,000 and the Kia more than $13,000.
|THOMAS JAMES HURST / THE SEATTLE TIMES|
|Car dealers talk business in front of used vehicles at Adnan Market in Baghdad, where postwar sales have been brisk.|
The rise in car sales has dramatically changed traffic flows, a fact that hits Hussain every time he tries to navigate his way back home.
As thousands of used cars have rolled onto the streets of Baghdad, massive traffic jams have ensued. This is lockjaw gridlock that would fray the nerves of even the most veteran of Interstate 5 commuters making the Everett-to-Seattle run.
Deep in the center of the city, traffic is bumper to bumper for blocks on end, moving only in brief fits. Since most signal lights are broken, the cars go every which way, without benefit of traffic control except for an occasional beleaguered policeman. Horns bleat a constant cacophony, and air pollution sears the eyes and chokes the lungs.
Veteran drivers also complain that the used-car boom has brought a lot of novice drivers onto the roads, and that has increased the risk of accidents. There is no requirement for insurance, so if people get injured they must take care of themselves, Hussain said.
The U.S. military also is aggravating traffic. Security concerns have led the military to close down some highways and put up checkpoints on others. That has funneled more cars onto the downtown boulevards.
Security also has affected the high-end car market.
Hussain says top-of-the-line Mercedes-Benz models are not big sellers right now. Even if people have the cash, many don't want to draw attention to themselves by driving around in a luxury car. They fear the thieves who prowl Baghdad relentlessly.
So Hussain has specialized in less-glamorous cars, and it appears to have paid off.
He says he earns about $2,500 a month, more than five times his previous income. He rents an apartment where he and his wife and their three children live, but he dreams of buying his own home with a small yard. That will be a struggle. He says the prices of such homes have escalated from $30,000 to roughly $150,000.
But he's hopeful for the future.
"Insha'Allah" God willing, he says, he will find that house.
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company
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