“They called me Kurdi,” says real estate tycoon Abdelwadoud al-Kurdi from behind his desk in Amman, lighting a cigarette and reminiscing about his university years in England.
“I was serious at university, focused on my studies. I helped students who were in trouble, I built my community.”
But even serious students take a break every now and then. Al-Kurdi takes a deep drag on his cigarette and grins as he recalls a sunny afternoon at a swimming pool in Middle England and a girl he still can’t forget.
“Ah, she was a beauty. She killed me!” he says with a cackle.
Al-Kurdi may be miles and years from Preston Polytech, where he completed a bachelor’s of engineering in 1984. But his mind is still going, still learning, thinking ahead to the next project, looking outwards to regional events and considering how they may affect his and his brother’s multinational Kurdi Group development company, or occasionally, looking back to those halcyon English days.
Kurdi Group is one of Jordan’s reliable economic drivers in uncertain times. Abdelwadoud and his brother Obaida built Kurdi Group real estate’s division out of hard work and less than $50,000 in savings in the mid-1990s.
But Kurdi Group itself, like Jordan’s al-Kurdis, has been around for more than 150 years. In 1860 Seydo al-Kurdi, the brothers’ great-grandfather and one of the first Kurds in what is now Jordan, started a company for commerce, trade and agriculture. He bought land, lots of it, and he held onto that land as the Ottoman Empire developed and fell and eventually, Jordan emerged.
Seydo al-Kurdi is a legendary figure in Jordanian lore, a clever businessman who was active in politics and engaged with his community at grassroots and national levels. “He was even briefly the second speaker of the Jordanian government during the reign of King Abdullah I,” says his great-grandson with a serious nod.
The reputation Seydo established so many years ago has acted as a guarantor, his descendants say, promising precision, execution, and diligence. And it’s not just in real estate that these qualities matter: Dama al-Kurdi, a Thursday morning news presenter for Jordan TV and a senior staff at the Jordanian Kurdish Cultural Center, says she too benefits from the al-Kurdi name.
“The Kurdish population is very influential here,” Dama says. “Kurdish culture in Jordan is rising and Kurds enjoy a good relationship with the Jordanian court: princesses have married Kurds!”
Dama estimates there are between 60,000 and 70,000 Kurds in Jordan, but not all are al-Kurdis. The family names Saadon, Zaza, Kurd and Bayazid and Mari are all also common. “We’re all part of the Diaspora, but we are not all relatives,” Dama explains.
“We don’t have part of Kurdistan here in Jordan to feel we are occupied,” she says. “We don’t feel we are estranged from our country, or that we are guests. We are Jordanian, and the best place to be a Kurd is Jordan. Better land, a long heritage here, and Jordan is like a picture, where everyone has their own space in the picture.”
But membership in the Diaspora has its challenges – like language. Like many Kurds born and raised in very integrated Diaspora communities, Dama doesn’t speak Kurdish fluently.
“When I first went to Kurdistan, I wanted to cry, I just couldn’t connect. I feel Kurdish here in Jordan and Jordanian there in Kurdistan – it was so sad.”
She and her son are now learning Kurdish.
Conversations with other Kurds in Jordan suggest that this population is one of the country’s most comfortable ethnic groups -- both financially and culturally. Kurds are doctors, lawyers, politicians, economists and media professionals. They run companies, own land – both Abdelwadoud and Dama insist this is a part of the Kurdish mentality – and tend to take an active role in their communities. Yet, they also have the space and freedom to celebrate their culture by wearing national dress and holding events and festivals.
Yet as integrated as they are, blood is thicker than water: Kurds here say they have a preference for hiring and helping their own, and that if equally qualified people were vying for the same opportunity in a Kurdish company, as a Kurd, they think it should go to them.
As the co-head of a multinational company whose biggest problem is not balancing the books – a “conservative financial strategy” got Kurdi Group through the financial crisis with few scrapes – but retaining staff, Abdelwadoud says he is less concerned with where a person came from and more concerned with whether they will stay.
Kurdi Group works hard to train staff, he says, investing time and money into development and then rewarding staff with generous salaries and frequent promotions. The company’s business approach, like its engineer co-founder, is built on testing, improving, listening, observing and testing again.
“This is what we do, every day in our lives,” says Abdelwadoud. But a strict set of principles prevent the al-Kurdi brothers from wielding the insight and influence they have gathered in the private sector in the public sphere: Adbelwadoud is not involved with Jordanian politics.
“This is one of our ethics: we do not approach anybody,” he says. If a minister or other public figure were to approach and ask for insights, he’d be happy to share.
But like so many other successful founders and builders of companies, Adbelwadoud is most comfortable sticking to what he does best: researching the market, finding out how things work, asking questions and using the information he gathers to build shopping malls and housing developments that have boosted economies and changed skylines in Amman and Aleppo. And if negotiations proceed as he hopes, that will happen soon in Erbil, too.