Sunrise over Amman reveals a mix of old and new architecture—Photo by Andrew Moore, Flickr Creative Commons.

By Maria Lattouf Abou Atmi

In 2013, Nabeel Abu-Ata ran for mayor of Amman—a position that is appointed rather than elected. This act, along with his larger 101 for Amman organization, was designed to instill a sense of citizenship and create a cohesive identity within the Jordanian capital. Public Diplomacy Magazine’s Submissions Editor, Maria Lattouf Abou Atmi, e-mailed with Nabeel to discuss the larger implications of this movement.

PD Magazine: In 2011, you launched 101 for Amman, a movement to tackle and resolve some of the city’s major shortcomings and issues. Can you tell us a little more about why you created 101 for Amman and your goals for the initiative?

Nabeel Abu-Ata: I launched 101 for Amman back in 2011 coinciding with the outbreak of the Arab Spring. In Jordan, reform was imminent, and I realized that the fundamental protection against calamity in any healthy community lies in consecrating the concept of rights, starting from personal freedoms up to equal rights to receive services in the community and rights to participate in the decision-making process.

With that in mind, I simply decided in 2011 to publicly announce my candidacy for the vacant (un-elected) mayor post just 27 days before the prime minister was about to appoint the “approved” candidate for the position. I started this process by creating a fictional online election campaign. My message was short and clear: “My name is Nabeel Abu-Ata, and I am running for mayor”—just like the western politicians do it with their 30-second campaign ads. I, however, presented a 4.5-minute video. Unleashing my passion for filmmaking, I wrote, produced, and directed the short video addressing a number of issues that I believe call for our engagement as concerned citizens to reform the way we live and do things in the city. The video lists a number of problems that the people of Amman face on a daily basis; simple issues that irk the locals—issues that we the people who live in the city can do something about. Whom do we hold accountable and why are we apathetic towards our city when we can enable growth and change?

When I was asked about the reason that made me want to run for mayor, I always answered that I have 101 reasons. This wasn’t only a figure of speech. I took it so seriously, and inked 101 actions that I pledged to take—had I been an “elected” mayor—in order to effect change in the city. One hundred and one reasons as catalysts of change. One hundred and one reasons embodying all the pressing issues and shortcomings that our city suffers from, and from which we pledge to end them and seek collective community solutions. I categorized them and published them, in laymen terms, on a portal——declaring them as my doctrine for a better administration of the city.

This video and website, which capitalized on functions of social media, went viral online on the first day as an effect of people sharing them, not by paid advertising. They became an eye-opening public forum instigating constructive dialogue towards enhancing the standard of living, and enticing all citizens to take on their responsibilities and embody the role of “elected” mayors.

Amman is a modern city surrounded by ancient ruins, which seems to reflect your ideas on its political workings. Why was the direct election of a mayor (rather than the current system, which appoints a mayor) such an important part of your platform? Why did you decide to launch a mayoral campaign in 2013?

My campaign was intended to provoke the sentiments of Ammanis towards change considering that the mayor in Amman, unlike all other Jordanian and international cities, is appointed rather than elected. One third of the council members are also appointed; the rest are selected through direct provincial elections.

The intention of 101 for Amman is to empower the people of Amman and engage them in the decision-making processes in their city and to gather the people of Amman to voice their opinions in a structured manner. However, to answer your question, it is unfortunate that no more than 9 percent of the voters participate to elect the two-thirds of the current municipality council. Such voter turnout is by far the lowest percentage among the cities of Jordan and, according to international records, amongst the lowest percentage in the world. And this stems from the fact that citizens believe that all important matters are decided by the mayor and not the two-thirds elected segment of the council; hence, they are apathetic about participation and frustrated about the issue of lacking a “voice.”

It is said that the opposite of love is not hate but apathy. And despite the great patriotism that my countrymen have for Jordan, the low turnout at the ballot boxes reflect exactly the current state of apathy towards the city that we must shake off our backs to start the new feeling of caring, belonging, and ownership. Thus, and in order for the voices of Ammanis to be heard, I thought that we must take action in a collective manner, and it was essential to find a way to attract people’s attention with untraditional publicity—the mayor candidacy served the purpose well.

101 for Amman was providing the answer to the ownership question by enticing everyone to embody the role of a mayor in the city, and not wait to elect one. We are owners and not temporary tenants, and this is the recipe to turn this city back to greatness: a position enjoyed historically across all civilizations that passed by Amman, to which the ancient ruins stand as living proof.

You describe your movement as an act of “culture-jamming.” What exactly did you mean by that, and how can Amman 101 help reshape the identity of Amman’s citizens?

This courageous move as described by many, in Middle-Eastern standards, was seen as a daring challenge of the status quo. While the Arab Spring winds were waning away from Jordan by 2013, many of the opposition forces as well as the pro status quo incremental reformists united behind my discourse, which turned into a culture jamming act that left people wondering why on earth the city mayor is not elected, and what exactly are the city council’s jurisdictions and what is the real potential of the city. Is depriving people of the right to elect a mayor and the entirety of the city council a statement meant to undermine the intelligence or the preparedness of the Ammani citizens? I called my act “culture jamming” because it leveraged media tools; however, a more precise term for this action is “disruption,” and this is exactly what the movement has caused to the status quo in the city. Citizens who interacted with us started asking questions about rights, living standards, accountability, innovation, potential, excellence, and culture, and they influenced others to do so as well.

Cities around the world are finding it more important than ever to connect and work on both local and global issues. How important is it for Amman to communicate with other cities to share best practices and experiences?

Resilience is a universal language among many cities in the world facing similar challenges in the areas of affordable housing, gentrification, exponential urbanization, transportation, environment protection, population growth, refugee influx, and job opportunity creation. It is estimated that 66 percent of the world’s population will be living in urban areas by 2050. This global trend is calling for cities to learn from each other’s small successes in confronting the big challenges, which is equally as important as adopting best practices.

With this growth of population in urban areas, it is the convention now to consider cities as the economic blocks of civilization and not countries. Borders around countries will not define people anymore, rather they will be defined by the urban settings in the cities in which they live. The geographical proximity isn’t going to matter in inter-trade as much as cities’ transportation and communication infrastructure, technological innovation, energy independence, and freedom of mobility.

It is essential for cities to become smart communities to maintain a healthy expansion to accommodate for the rapid urban and population growth. Thus, learning from each other is crucial given that the answers to most challenges are becoming applicable and adoptable across the globe, particularly when the gaps in the social behavior and customs of the citizens in different cities are lessening by the hour.

On that note, do you view Amman’s problems in the context of larger Jordanian or regional issues, or do you see Amman as a global city whose problems are more closely related to those facing other large metropolises around the world? 

Many people view Amman’s challenges as exceptional, particularly when considering the continuous refugee influx that is causing an unnatural growth of Amman’s population and expansion of its borders, as well as the difficulty of conducting any proper future planning that relies on organically extrapolated growth statistics. However, this is not totally exceptional and Ammanis must admit that these conditions are ubiquitous and can be seen in China, Western Europe, and many cities in the Americas.

Having said that, it doesn’t mean that challenges facing cities are all equal in magnitude or exist because of the same root causes. By that I mean that the economic situation in Jordan is different than elsewhere, and the geopolitical factors that determine the medium we live in are specific to Jordan and its surroundings, and consequently Amman feels this heat. There is no value to any rhetoric that discusses the city’s development without considering the diversity, complexity, and competitiveness of Amman’s economy—taking into account the revealed comparative advantage of its locally produced goods and what know-how the citizens possess and share with the world.

Based on the above, I believe some of the deep problems in Amman lie in the political will to affect change, and the capabilities and courage of the local government to introduce innovative and investment-intensive solutions to solve problems, diversify the economy, and empower the citizens with distinctive means to raise living standards over time. In this regard, Amman shares the same pain felt in smaller and developing countries’ cities; however, on most urban challenges, comparing metropolises is very relevant.

Are there any cities, either in the region or elsewhere, that you view as models for the development and future growth of Amman?  

Every city has something we can learn from and aspire to, and a great innovation to adopt. But I am of the school of thought that each city should develop and grow according to its own citizens’ desires based on a plan that its own citizens establish collectively, and not to simply mimic another city’s model in its entirety.

Of course, there are great success stories that one needs to learn from other cities. As a global citizen, I like to expand the horizon beyond the region. I like to look at Medellín’s innovative transportation solution in interlacing the city’s fractured mountainous neighborhoods, among many other things that can be learned from that particular city.

I view Los Angeles’ contrast of its “diversity without adversity,” combined with the division between the wealthy and the unfortunate, as a model worth studying and learning from while trying to build bridges in the not very harmonious social fabric of Amman. As a metropolitan city, Los Angeles also faces challenges of rapid population growth and scarcity of water, making integration of newcomers to the city difficult and relevant.

The story of how hosting the Olympics or a major global event in a city can contribute to creating a better transportation system, dealing with long-standing infrastructure problems, and boosting an economy are lessons to be learned from Rio, London, and Seoul.

I can learn from examples about business efficiency in landlocked cities such as Johannesburg, and how they can strive for economic growth—or how Madrid and Prague manage a strong tourism economy despite being far from the ocean.

There are many other lessons that can be learned from small or big cities that might not have best practices, but that make serious and innovative attempts at proactive crime rate reduction and law-enforcement tactics such as in Karachi, Pakistan or Gurgaon, India; or others dealing with creative poverty alleviation approaches such as in Yiwu, China; or in civic engagement, culture, and arts society development such as in Vilnius, Lithuania; or in smart city solutions such as in Zaragoza, Spain. So to answer your question, I don’t see one model in one city, but rather many best practices and new innovative ideas and endeavors, each of which can be reviewed and localized to fit the parameters of Amman’s growth aspiration, citizens’ capabilities, and spirit. The list never ends, and each idea that can be introduced with the citizens’ consensus will play a role in the city’s development and growth.

In the Arab world, Amman is a key player in discussions around refugees, Islamic culture, and green growth. What potential do you see for the city in this area?  

I see a missed opportunity on the refugee issue. The city’s policies are governed by the central government’s policies on giving work permits for refugees. I have hoped that policy makers in Amman would turn this refugee challenge into an opportunity by creating incubators for different industries on the peripheries of the city, and other incubators for artists, performers, and entrepreneurs in the center, allowing refugees to work and transfer know-how essential for the city’s growth. To be honest, I think the knowledge transfer and brain gain from refugees that could support economic growth is a missed opportunity.

On the Islamic culture question, I see a lot of potential when it comes to Islamic heritage sites. Amman is surrounded by Islamic palaces, castles, and shrines that are fine examples of Arab and Islamic architecture, and the tombs of many of Prophet Mohammad’s (PBUH) companions, some of which have been cited in the holy Quran. Further, Prophet Mohammad mentioned Amman when describing heaven when he said: “My Pool (in heaven) stretches for the distance like that which is between Aden and Amman of Al-Balqa.” This is an untapped opportunity to start a specialized Islamic tourism trail, to which Amman can serve as the logistics and hospitality center. H.M. King Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein launched the “Amman Message.” Its goal was to clarify the true nature of Islam and the nature of true Islam—seeking to declare what Islam is and what it is not, and what actions represent it and what actions do not. Hence, Amman is considered the center of and the real representation of modern Islamic culture. This, in addition to the closeness of the local dialect to standard Arabic, can turn the city into an educational hub, attracting students who wish to study Arabic from all over the world. There is a great opportunity there for the city, and whatever I mentioned on the Islamic heritage sites apply to the numerous biblical sites and churches of Christianity surrounding Amman.

As for green growth, this is a domain that Amman can boast about. We have one of the best policy frameworks backed by a well-studied national strategy on renewable energy, which has positioned Jordan as a major hub for foresighted energy policy in the region. Many businesses and households are turning to solar energy aiming to eliminate the electricity bills and reduce the carbon footprint. Jordan and Amman in particular are trendsetters in this domain that are bound to export such know-how to neighboring countries and the region.

If you were to be elected mayor today, what would your municipal foreign policy priorities be?

There are many twinning agreements signed with Amman that need to become effective. There are plenty of ideas and solutions that can be instantly localized and adopted, hence my policy would be to be ready for immediate adoption and implementation of select ideas in the city. There are also many resilience and co-existence lessons that Amman can teach other cities, so it will be a two-way policy aimed at promoting Amman as much as aspiring to learn from others. The municipal foreign policy will be to open up Amman for a real and unprecedented cultural exchange with as many cities around the world as possible; we should design programs to promote Amman as a tourist destination in itself, and not just an airport destination for Petra. We have what it takes to host regional and international conferences that would bring participants from all over the world. The priorities will be for Amman to become a central convention center, a touristic destination, and a cultural hub that hosts international festivities, sports and arts events, and exchanges all year long.

In the years since 101 for Amman was launched, you have earned a graduate degree in public administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government before returning to Amman. How has that experience shaped or reshaped your vision of 101 for Amman? 

The experience at Harvard humbled me. It taught me that change is not achieved by voicing an opinion, writing a paper, or delivering a speech. Harvard, with its tradition of excellence, served as an incubator for me to learn from professors and classmates who have struggled with similar problems clad in clothes of another country or time, and it taught me that embracing collective action on behalf of our communities should no longer be portrayed as the problem, but a necessary part of the solution. At Harvard, of all places, I learned the true meaning of an Arab proverb which states, “Only the tent pitched by your own hands will stand.” Indifference to the problems of those around us builds no tents. Apathy will break the ribs of our governments when we are in need of the strongest and deepest stakes bolted to the ground. My vision of democracy is to believe that a democratic government is only as strong as the leaders who fill those elected positions; if we as citizens don’t exercise leadership and mobilize communities then no one will. After earning this degree, my vision was reshaped to seek to affect change on the ground with real technical solutions that aim to touch the lives of people in communities instead of purely campaigning for an elected office.

What’s next for you and for your movement?

Technical solutions to existing problems need to come from the people who are advised by knowledgeable individuals and entities. 101 for Amman will focus more on a real social audit of the citizens—learning more about them, their demographics, habits, expenses, built environment, and challenges, as well as identifying the influencers, employers, and leaders amongst them. It is important to start a real districting exercise for the city to be determined based on the development needs of the people, and not based purely on geography. In my view, Amman is one city and its city council shouldn’t be elected or selected based on elections happening in small provinces. Instead, there should be a general election for the entire city, which will allow for the most competent individuals with a clear development agenda on issues relating to transportation, sanitation, city economic diversification, job creation, tourism attraction, energy conservation, environmental protection, and cultural rejuvenation. A city council that answers to the serious development needs of the city at large and improves each citizen’s life through a systematic change process that connects the neighborhoods would cause real transformation, instead of small and disconnected modifications around some of the provinces.

I will be looking for the next disruption activity along those lines, away from rhetoric and with an aspiration to lead the city and the Ammanis to become richer in all aspects.

Nabeel Abu-Ata is the founder of the 101-for-Amman organization with the mission to foster active citizenship in Amman, Jordan. Nabeel served as head of strategy at the Kawar Group, focused in renewable energy and private equity. Nabeel also served as secretary general of the Jordan Basketball Federation and was in charge of launching the first marathon in Amman. He started his consulting career at the EU-funded Industrial Modernization Program focusing on pharmaceutical exports. Nabeel earned his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Industrial Engineering and Operations Management from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and, most recently, a Master in Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Nabeel is on the Jubilee Institute Council of Directors, and he is a member of the Jordan Strategies Forum and the Young Arab Leaders. He is also an Aspen Institute Fellow.