Trade a Lexus for a prestigious phone number? In Iraq, the best digits cost a mint.
By TAMER EL-GHOBASHY AND MUSTAFA SALIM | The Washington Post | Published: February 14, 2018
BAGHDAD — In Iraq, owning this special item can grease the skids in business, get a politician to stand at attention and even inspire affection in a sweetheart.
This key that opens so many doors is a cellphone SIM card.
But not just any SIM card. It must be "distinguished," associated with a phone number considered prestigious because it has a distinctive or beautiful series of digits. Say, for instance, a string of sevens or zeros, or a repeating pattern of numerals.
The marketplace for these modest pieces of plastic inside phones, which connect them to a network, can rival that of gold and precious stones - with trades in the thousands and tens of thousands of dollars.
And while this market emerged about a decade ago, a newfound optimism in Iraq's future after the recent defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq has increased demand for the special SIMs among aspiring business executives, political neophytes and young people looking to treat themselves.
They've become so popular that Iraq's largest telecom companies are formalizing the trade, introducing offers for tiered SIM cards from "Silver" to "Diamond Plus." A regular SIM card runs about $3, while a Silver card carrying a number with some combination of consecutive pairs, such as 4455, costs about $30. A Diamond Plus card - which features a number whose last five digits are the same - will set a seeker back $1,300 to $1,500.
But it's on the street and in internet chat rooms - where the trend was born - that the big-money cards, also known as "presidential numbers," are found.
The value of the cards is derived not from numerology or lucky dates but from what the number conveys to others about the phone's owner.
"These numbers are a language," said Haider Mohamed, a 45-year-old cellphone dealer who specializes in distinguished phone numbers. His shop, "World of Distinction," located in a shopping strip in central Baghdad, advertises the special permutations available for sale on long sheets of paper displayed in the window.
"A man makes calculations for what will make him successful in life or in business," Mohamed said. "Among them is what his phone number says about him."
And what does a phone number with the right combination of consecutive zeros and ones say?
"It says he has taste. It also says he's loaded," Mohamed said, breaking out into laughter. "It gives him optimism. It gives him prestige."
Mohamed said he once traded a particularly beautiful number to a businessman for a $60,000 Lexus, a claim confirmed by Mohamed's top rival in the prestigious numbers business.
Owners of the numbers and the merchants who sell them generally agree the trend began sometime in 2007 - a result of Saddam Hussein's ouster in 2003 during the Iraq War. Iraq, long cut off from the world by punishing sanctions and pariah status, began to open up; new technology and foreign products started to pour in. Cellphones were among the most coveted items, especially in a country where few people use landlines.
Iraqis became brand-conscious in everything from cars to clothes. Luxury items that once were within the reach only of the narrow ruling elite flooded the market. If you had money, you could express your individuality through what you wore, what you drove and what you carried.
The toppling of Hussein also shattered the tight political and business class that had surrounded him, creating opportunities for savvy entrepreneurs and ambitious would-be power-brokers. To project status and sophistication, they needed the right tools. An impressive phone number became indispensable.
While the phone number market exists in several other Middle Eastern countries, nowhere has it reached the excesses of Iraq. Rarely do the prices elsewhere approach $100. That's because, for Iraqis, it's about more than vanity. It's a way to stand out in a society in which political upheaval has opened the door for new elites to emerge.
Essa Sultan, a 47-year-old contractor, said he paid $1,200 in 2009 for a phone number that ends with six sevens. He has been offered $10,000 for the number, but he refuses to sell it.
"This number gives the impression that I am distinguished, which helps me get business, especially among officials in the state ministries who I am dealing with," he said. "If I call them from a regular number, they wouldn't answer my call but when they see this number, they can't ignore it because they know a VIP is calling them."
Sultan said his phone number is an essential element of his studied bling.
"I am always keen on carrying the latest iPhone and having latest Land Cruiser," he said, referring to the prized and pricey Toyota luxury SUV. "The phone number completes the prestige."
In a country such as Iraq, where corruption in the public sector is so endemic that Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has declared rooting out graft to be the next big fight after defeating the Islamic State, giving SIM cards with distinguished numbers to politicians is a common and illicit way to curry favor. The cards help launder the bribes because they can be traded for cash.
Dealers said many of their regulars are assistants to Iraqi politicians and military officers who come to sell the valuable SIM cards gifted to their bosses.
But for many, the desire for a distinctive number is less nefarious. Small businesses and start-ups covet them because the repetitive number combinations make them easy to memorize and project professionalism, said Dera Tarek, a 31-year-old who owns a modest car dealership.
"It helps me with marketing the company," he said. "After getting one for $100, it's helped my business grow."
Hussam al-Zaidi, 29, posted a notice on a Facebook group dedicated to the buying and selling of the special digits that he is in the market for a card that will set him back no more than $300. Zaidi was looking for love, and he believed that his pedestrian phone number was holding him back.
"A friend of mine has a distinguished number that helps him get many girls," he said. "So I thought of trying it, but I was stunned by the prices. Some numbers are even more expensive than fancy cars."
Ali Rasheed, a 22-year-old photographer who works part-time at a cellphone shop in Baghdad's upscale Mansour district, recoils at the practice - which he said many Iraqis who struggle with poverty would find grotesque.
"It's all about showing-off, nothing more," he seethed. "People who do this only care about shallow appearances and getting ahead in any way."
Safa Mohsen has no such qualms. Indeed, he says he's the one personally responsible for inflating SIM card prices so much. Mohsen, a wiry 44-year-old, calls himself "the King of Distinguished Numbers" and runs a store of the same name. And he's recognized among his fellow dealers as the premier broker for important people seeking very specific numbers. He maintains a stock of about 2,000 distinctive cards - the most valuable worth $3,000 - and can be commissioned to arrange special acquisitions.
His shop bustles with people hoping to sell him their SIM cards and make a small fortune. He rapidly evaluates their worth.
A Washington Post reporter asked him to appraise several phone numbers belonging to prominent Iraqis from the newspaper's Baghdad bureau contact index.
Former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki's two numbers are worth more than $10,000 each, Mohsen concluded. Maj. Gen. Fadhil Jamil al-Barwari of the elite, U.S.-trained Counter Terrorism Service, had a number that would fetch at least $38,000 for the sheer number of consecutive zeros, Mohsen said.
But even a dealer with Mohsen's clout has a white whale - a number so rare and beautiful that he says he has been commissioned by the owner of an Iraqi television station to acquire the number for $120,000. The phone number has seven consecutive zeros and belongs to a policeman in the city of Kirkuk. But Mohsen said the officer wouldn't accept the offer and the television baron, whom Mohsen declined to identify, couldn't afford to pay more.
The policeman had bought the SIM card in 2007 for a mere $125, according to Mohsen.
Why would a civil servant balk at the six-figure payout?
"He cherishes it," Mohsen said. "Just like wine, the older it gets the more valuable it becomes."