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Conspicuous Consumption as the Jordanian Dream

May 29, 2012

A Jordanian asked me what the stereotypical American dream was.  I responded, “A 9 to 5 job, a husband or wife, owning- not renting- a house in the suburbs, a 4 door car, 2.5 kids, a dog, a 401K.”  I asked him what the Jordanian dream was.

He said it was simple. “A car, a wife, a house.  Not necessarily in that order, and the car has to be fast.”  He then went into loving detail about his dream car and all the features it would have.

Fancy car from the Royal Automobile Museum

Along with Jordan’s huge wealth disparity, there is a cultural emphasis on conspicuous consumption.  Cars especially seem to be a national fascination.  There is a historical reason for this, of course: the late King Hussein was a fanatic about cars, and collected hundreds of rare and expensive automobiles in his lifetime, now on display in the Royal Automobile Museum.  But the modern iteration of car adoration takes it to a new grassroots level.

Cars here are often large, gas guzzling, expensive, with custom rims and expensive sound systems.  On one level this makes pragmatic sense as everyone spends a lot of time in the car, so it might as well be comfortable; the traffic is horrendous, there is limited public transportation, and few sidewalks to walk on, mostly in poor repair.  One’s car is therefore often on display, and many strangers will see it, and make judgments on one’s economic status based upon it.  And because so many Jordanians are poor, having a nice car is a requisite, not for appearing rich, but rather for fending allegations that the owner is poor.  “Conspicuous consumption, research suggests, is not an unambiguous signal of personal affluence. It’s a sign of belonging to a relatively poor group. Visible luxury thus serves less to establish the owner’s positive status as affluent than to fend off the negative perception that the owner is poor.”

The term ‘conspicuous consumption’ was coined by a dude in the 19th century named Thorstein Veblen.  He argued that people spent lavishly on goods that were visible to outsiders to prove they were prosperous, even if they weren’t.  Conversely, those who actually were extremely wealthy had less of a need to prove it (assumption of wealth, as opposed to assumption of poverty), and therefore spend money on subtler luxury goods or goods for private consumption.  Concern with buying brand named items, in America for instance, is an attribute more closely associated with those solidly in the lower middle class, than those who are wealthy.  Wealthy people care more about quality than pure name recognition.

But let’s go back to Jordan for a moment.  As I said previously, there is a huge wealth gap in Jordan between the wealthy and the struggling.  Neighborhoods such as Abdoun or Sweifieh are wealthy, and McMansions abound.  On Thursday nights (Friday night equivalent to the States) in Abdoun or Sweifieh, it is common to see people in cars, just cruising around the neighborhood, blasting music.  They aren’t going anywhere in particular; they don’t have residences in the region.  They are just enjoying being in a posh area, soaking in the feeling of wealth that these large houses with their expensive security systems and armed guards and gold plated door knockers exude.

Women shopping at Abdali Market.

Most Jordanians have two or three cell phones, one for each major provider in Jordan.  Many covet and own smart phones, despite the price for one being even higher here than in America, and the Jordanian salary being much lower (I read somewhere that the average Jordanian makes 7,000 JOD a year, equivalent to approximately $10,000 American.)  Jordanian women are known for spending a lot of money on makeup and other beauty products, more than their Western female counterparts.

This emphasis on demonstrative luxury possession impacts many facets of Jordanian life beyond the economic considerations of trying to purchase beyond one’s means.  For instance, I was told in the past twenty years that the average Jordanian marrying age has risen from early twenties to 28 or 29, due in a large part because weddings are so expensive and young Jordanian men cannot afford one.  Before the wedding day even occurs, a groom is supposed to buy his wife gold jewelry (rings and bracelets and a necklace) equal to at least 1,000 JOD, and give her a minimum in cash equal to that amount as well.  This is a sort of dowry guarantee, as she gets to keep the money should they split up.  It is seen as recompense for the ‘damage’ to her reputation, which occurs even if her virginity is intact for the wedding.  The wedding day itself is also supposed to be expensive; the groom has to demonstrate through lavish spending that he can take care of his wife to be.

A sign at a women’s clothing store in al-Balad.

In short, spending money, “the shopping experience,” is an important cultural phenomenon in Jordan.  It is a matter of pride to look wealthy, even if that is far from the truth.  It isn’t as bad here as in the Gulf countries, where oil money wealth disparity is even more stark, and spending on frivolous items more out of control (did you hear about the $450,000 Rolls-Royce Phantom studded with diamonds and plated with gold? Now you have!)  Jordan is still in the process of deciding what kind of country it is going to be in the future.  Part of its economy is West-focused or emulated, another part is more orientated towards a Pan-Arab conception of important values: morality, the home, the community, males providing for all female relatives.  Will Jordan’s wealth disparity increase, and conspicuous consumption with it?  Or will the next generation of prosperous Jordanians subtly decorate their homes with tasteful understated art, spend more on education and health care, and leave the Mercedes Benz for their poorer neighbor next door to purchase?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    June 2, 2012 7:36 PM

    As usual, you write well and provide the reader with clearly stated information. I enjoy it, and it is likely many others do too.

    Papa Bert.

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