Loophole opens door for Iraqi graphic artist

In this undated photo, Saif Al-Ali (bottom right) sits with other entrepreneurs during a startup weekend. (Photo: Techstars)
AMMAN — Legal restrictions have long limited thousands of Iraqi migrants and refugees’ ability to work in Jordan. But Saif Al-Ali doesn’t cite this as the reason it was important for him to start his own company here, regardless of how difficult it was.اضافة اعلان

Instead, he cites his father, “My father taught us to only partner with brothers, not with others,” he explains. “My father is my idol. When he was sixteen, he started his own company. He’s never worked as an employee his whole life.”

There are around 67,000 registered Iraqis living in Jordan,  according to UNHCR in 2020. Saif’s journey to Jordan was typical for many Iraqis in his generation. He left Baghdad with his two younger brothers for Syria in 2006, three years after the war began. In 2012, he found himself in Amman for similar reasons.

He began studying architecture in Syria but always had a love for graphic design that dated as far back as 2007. In the years after coming to Jordan, Saif established himself by freelancing, until in 2019, alongside his brother, Ayham, he felt he had sufficient experience and connections to open his own office, is now called Designs Field. “But if you want to register a company here in Jordan, you have to have a partner, a Jordanian partner.”

Saif can’t remember if it was six or seven times that his business proposal was rejected by the Ministry of Industry, Trade, and Supply because of his nationality. He does remember that during his last visit, he was finally introduced to an obscure loophole that proved to be the key to his own office. “One of the employees there told me told me there was a legal sheet, or let me say, a regulations sheet. You can find it somewhere on the internet. So, I downloaded it and read it again and again and again and found that I can register my company as a graphic design office. Not interior design, not architecture, not fashion design ... Just graphic design.”

To this day, he’s not sure why his field was an exception. “This was the only word that I could build my whole case on. So, I went back to this legal facility, and told them ‘this is a sheet from you that says non-Jordanian people can register a graphic design office here in Jordan.’” It took yet another two months until everything was approved, and he was able to establish Designs Field legally.

Two years later, Designs Field is currently moving to another nearby office, (the old one is too small now.) It was fine when it was just him and his brother, but now they’ve got a staff, a team of freelancers, and a large enough client base to focus on expansion. By 2023 he wants an office in Riyadh. In 2026 he wants another one in Florida.

He has also partnered with Jusoor, an organization that specializes in assisting non-Jordanian business’ growth in Amman. “We did a quick survey last year, we asked small businesses and refugees: ‘what are your top three challenges in Jordan?’ They said: funding and access to finance,” explained Anas Al-Chalabi, the MENA region entrepreneurship manager at Jusoor.

The second biggest problem that came up was marketing. “With a lot of them (businesses), we saw that they have a nice product, a good service but we just need to spread the word about them. ... The services that Saif was providing were critical to Jusoor’s portfolio of businesses.” Saif ended up doing the branding for 10 of Jusoor’s businesses, the result of which Anas described as “a complete makeover”.

As Anas has invested more time focusing on migrant start-ups, he’s also seen restrictions against Iraqis rapidly reformed in Jordan, particularly since January 2020. “(The Jordanian government) kind of realized that, ‘Ok, if we allow refugees and Arab expats to start businesses in Jordan, we might lose a few job opportunities, but if those businesses grow they will be able to hire dozens of Jordanian workers.’”

However, he concedes, that with these legal shifts, there also must be a greater focus on accountability within the Jordanian government. “The average (term) for a Jordanian minister is a year and four months. So pretty much every year, you have a new minister, you have a new cabinet and that kind of destabilizes the entire public sector. ... People are afraid, I mean (public sector employees think) if I do something that would slightly jeopardize my career, I might lose my job. That means that’s the end of my career, no other public sector would hire me.”

Saif experienced this first-hand, Designs Field was never technically an illegal idea.  Regardless, no one at the ministry wanted to take the risk to approve him. “When I met the first person there, he told me I can’t. When I met the second person there, he told me I can’t. When I provided him with the legal paper that says I could register for a graphic design company here, he said he couldn’t help me, he told me to ask his manager. And his manager couldn’t help me (either), he told me to ask his manager, and so on.” he explained.

Saif would like to go back to Iraq one day, though just to visit. He’s still optimistic about the situation there and feels things will become steadily more functional, “Hopefully in 10 years’ time”. His father, 58, is in Baghdad, getting his business restarted. He comes to Jordan from time to time to visit his three sons, but Saif is hoping to see him again during Ramadan. He’d like the whole family to be together.