What’s in a phone number? For those living in Iraq, there has been a scramble for attaining phone numbers that reflect on someone’s status. Some “distinguished phone numbers” in Iraq can fetch high prices for what is, at face level, just a way of individuating a caller’s identity. In a recent report from The Washington Post, the culture and economy of Iraq in the last decade has facilitated new luxuries, with distinguished phone numbers being one subtle method to communicate your success in the embattled region. This success, of course, can bring in more business, a connection to a prominent politician, or the attainment of potential romantic partners because they serve to differentiate from the masses.
According to the Washington Post, the market for distinguished numbers has formed its own sort of internal logic, with seemingly arbitrary connotations only visible to those who value them. To outsiders of Iraqi culture, the only criterion that seems applicable is that distinguished phone numbers should contain a series of digits that are deemed appealing to the eye. For instance, a string of 7s or zeros, or a repeating pattern of numerals are highly-valued, while others may just want to attain a lucky number that reflects their personality or personal beliefs in hopes of success.
For Iraq, this phenomenon of attributing so much value to what amounts to just surface-level communication can be explained by a country that is rebuilding after multiple wars. Individuals that are looking to pick up the pieces have used distinguished phone numbers as a way of re-establishing cultural hierarchies. With the tyrannical culture instigated by Islamic State (ISIS or IS) appearing to be contained outside of the country, Iraqis are looking to acquire a status symbol in the relatively stabilized country, facing a hopeful future and looking to build new careers in the wake of turmoil.
For run-of-the-mill phone numbers, retailers in Iraq will typically charge $3 for an attached-number SIM card that isn’t particularly notable. For some Iraqis, a midrange number is acceptable because they are simply looking for something easy to remember without much flair. Iraqi telecom companies charge around $30 for an attached-number SIM card that contains some combination of consecutive digits. For those that want even more desirable numbers, prices can stretch up to the $1,500 range (known as “diamond numbers” on a particular telecom’s pricing tier).
However, prices for in-demand distinguished phone numbers can even be high in secondary market retailers. These shops often have price lists and offer appraisals to entice potential customers with the status that can be attained for a substantial sum of money. For instance, two numbers associated with the former Iraq prime minister Nouri al-Maliki are reported to be worth more than $10,000 each. Similarly, Fadhil Jamil al-Barwari, the Major-General of the U.S.-trained counterterrorism service, once possessed a phone number that contained a large number of consecutive zeros. That price? At least $38,000, according to shop owners.
Shop owners believe that this trend is based on the idea that distinguished phone numbers show how important individuals view themselves and how they wish to communicate their status to others. After all, would you expect to contact a head of state on just a common phone number? Similarly, those who are successful in business feel the need to communicate their ability to manifest their own destiny in a country that was once repressed by internal conflicts and external wars. There’s also the criminal aspect, where bribes can be laundered through the exchange of cash-for-numbers that can grease the wheels of nefarious exchanges.
However, pricing for these distinguished phone numbers can be akin to stumbling upon rare treasure. There was one instance where a distinguished phone number, which was deemed so rare and beautiful that the owner of an Iraqi television station sought to acquire it for $120,000. This highly-valued phone number contains seven consecutive zeros (a good luck sign) and currently belongs to a lowly policeman in Kirkuk, Iraq. However, the police officer turned down the high offer from the television company owner, citing a low sum of money for such a highly-valued number. While the officer may seem foolish to turn down such a high offer, he may have the right idea in understanding its value. After all, having a highly-prized number can be useful for someone in his line of work.
Similarly, shop owners that sell distinguished phone numbers can recall the tale of a businessman bartering a $60K Lexus for a particularly beautiful number — demonstrating the lengths and means that Iraqis are willing to go to secure their future.
Of course, Iraq is not out of touch with how the rest of the world views status symbols and fair market pricing. After the ousting of Iraqi prime minister Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraq’s once-limiting sanctions were lifted, encouraging outside culture to seep back into the country and the freedom of those to express their individuality. Subsequently, Iraqis became brand-conscious with unseen trends flourishing via the Internet. As expected, iPhones and luxury vehicles are flaunted in nearly the same way in Iraq, just as they are among the affluent societies in Europe, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. However, in Iraq, the marketplace for these seemingly mundane pieces of plastic placed inside phones can rival the appeal of gold and diamonds, both of which are representative of the health of a market and the viability of a country’s future trade despite their speculative value.
Similarly, now that the world is ready to do business with Iraq again, those who were limited by Saddam Hussein’s regime have sprung free and have seized opportunities that weren’t available in the past. Ambitious entrepreneurs and power brokers have sought to project their influence and status with the right phone numbers, showing that those who have these numbers (or can afford those numbers) have attained a certain level of status. And, even small businesses have got in on the craze, purchasing numbers that are easy to remember, showing the prestige of the business itself.