Trade a Lexus for a prestigious phone number? In Iraq, the best digits cost a fortune
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 new-found optimism in Iraq’s future after the recent defeat of 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 formalising the trade, introducing offers for tiered SIM cards from “Silver” to “Diamond Plus.” A regular SIM card runs about US$3, while a Silver card carrying a number with some combination of consecutive pairs, such as 4455, costs about US$30. A Diamond Plus card – which features a number whose last five digits are the same – will set a seeker back US$1,300 to US$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 specialises 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 US$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 US$1,200 in 2009 for a phone number that ends with six sevens. He has been offered US$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.”
Safa Mohsen, a wiry 44-year-old, calls himself “the King of Distinguished Numbers” and runs a store of the same name.
A 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 US$10,000 each, Mohsen concluded. Major General Fadhil Jamil al-Barwari of the elite, US-trained Counter Terrorism Service, had a number that would fetch at least US$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 US$120,000. The phone number has seven consecutive zeros and belongs to a policeman in the city of Kirkuk
who bought the SIM card in 2007 for a mere US$125, according to Mohsen. But he isn't selling.
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.”