What Travel Writers Say

Aqaba, a mega-dollar opportunity

© By Mike Keenan

  No other Arab country in the world better exemplifies the geo-political advantages of being onside with American foreign policy than Jordan. Located in the very centre of the Middle East, I recently returned from ten days exploring this amazing historical entity.
     As I float on the saline Dead Sea and frolic with bikini clad natives along with Russian, German and British tourists who sip beer at luxurious infinity pools inside five-star gated hotels, it's difficult to reconcile the fact that immediately to my East, civil war rages between Sunnis and Shiites along with constant roadside explosions from I.E.D.'s killing and maiming U.S. forces in Iraq; to my West, Palestinian civil wars wage in Gaza and the West Bank, Fattah dueling with Hamas for ultimate control; to my North in Tripoli, Lebanese forces shell Muslim extremists cordoned off in a refugee camp and of course, nearby Syria pines for return of its Golan Heights with Saudi Arabia walking a fine line between appeasing religious Wahhabi radicals and oil-thirsty Americans with the latest threat, Iran, intent on producing nuclear capability to get on par with Israel which boasts the most powerful weaponry in the so-called Holy Land, thanks to an incredibly effective U.S. lobby and the fact that Israel serves as a vital component of clandestine operations in this inflammable neighbourhood that coincidentally constitutes a major source of energy for desperately competing and emerging economies, one of which, the Chinese, will soon outstrip the U.S. in its need to fuel their industrial revolution.
     A state of equilibrium did not come easy for Jordan, being involved in Arab-Israeli conflicts that occurred regularly since Israel's creation in 1948, with fighting in 1956, 1967, 1973-74, and 1982.
     On June 5, 1967, Israel flexed its military muscles and initiated the Six-Day War, launching massive air assaults that knocked out Arab air forces, capturing the entire Sinai Peninsula in a mere three days, then attacking the Jordanian frontier, seizing Jerusalem's Old City and Syria's strategic Golan Heights.
     In retaliation, on Oct. 6, 1973, the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, Egyptian forces crossed the Suez Canal and pushed Israelis back, while Syrians advanced from the north. Iraqi forces joined in and Syria received support from Jordan, Libya, and the smaller Arab states. U.S. and Soviet diplomatic pressure and the United Nations created a cease-fire with the 1973-74 War ultimately leading to the Camp David Accords.
     In 1978, Palestinian guerrillas in Lebanon launched an air raid on Israel; Israel sent troops into South Lebanon to protect its border. In 1982, Israel launched a massive attack to destroy all PLO military bases in South Lebanon.
     Realizing that the conflict had cost roughly $18.3 billion, Jordan, through King Hussein became the second Arab country after Egypt to normalize relations with Israel signing a peace accord in 1994. However, it lost control of the West Bank and West Jerusalem.
     Consequently, Jordan rapidly became a favourite destination for Arab refugees with wealth. Over 900,000 Iraqis have moved to Jordan and bought up property, cars and other material possessions, fuelling inflation that frustrates the locals.
     Is it safe? Yes, but it took surprise Al Qaeda suicide bombings of three Amman hotels in 2005 to force Jordan to adopt extreme security measures. I stayed at one of them, the Radisson where I watched every car subjected to searches, including mirrors for inspection underneath the frame and each person x-rayed along with personal bags upon entry. This procedure takes place also at restaurants. At all major hotels and tourist attractions, armed military guards patrol the grounds with formidable looking automatic weapons clutched in their hands. The Queen Alia International Airport reminded me of East German spy movies. Passports are studiously checked several times. One requires a visa for entry. Outside, we pass an armoured vehicle equipped with machine gun.
     The inhabitants seem buoyed by the show of force. They welcome tourists with genuine courtesy. I witness several examples that you don't see at home. A lady friend doesn't have enough cash to make a purchase from a pharmacy. The proprietor says, "Don't worry; send me the rest when you can." A group of Canadians seek a bank to change money. A street merchant stops and commandeers a car passing by; convinces the driver to take them up the steep hill to the bank. He complies and then drives them back. Turns out, he's the bank manager. Wow.
     Some ladies in our group worry about strict rules regarding dress. "No problem," says our guide, Ibrahim. "Dress as you would in the west." I witness the entire gamut of fashion here from women covered totally, wearing long gloves in the extreme heat to t-shirts and shorts. At a mosque, the ladies are provided with robes for the tour.
     After the production of phosphates and potash, tourism ranks as Jordan's number two product. Royal Jordanian Airlines flies direct from Montreal. With the Biblical sites, Roman/Byzantine ruins and luxury hotels on the Red and Dead Seas, Jordan is definitely a draw, its star attractions, Petra and Wadi Rum where they filmed Lawrence of Arabia.
     Jordan's $billion showpiece of economic preferential treatment is called ASEZ. In August 2000, the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority Law was passed by the Jordanian Parliament, allowing ASEZA "regulatory, administrative, fiscal and economic responsibilities within The Aqaba Special Economic Zone, a private sector-driven development initiative that maximizes private sector participation in a duty free, tax-advantaged and flexible regulatory operations environment providing a model approach to environmentally sustainable development and governance, a unique tourist destination on the Red Sea with a duty free shopping oasis accompanied with a high quality of life."
     In other words, think Dubai but on a grander scale. With western speculative investment funds pouring into Jordan's only port, the government has literally created a golden opportunity for commerce. Massive luxury hotels are on the drawing board along with a colossal man-made canal. Here's a sample Jordanian economic stimulus. I'm sitting at a posh conference desk inside the Tourism Division headquarters. Amjad Shatnawi, Marketing and Research Officer looks Canadian tour operators squarely in the eye and offers them $5,000 ("a rebate") for each of ten tours that involves over 100 people. Hmm, a $50,000 finder's fee! Would anyone like to start up a tour company with me?

Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review. Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. His work is found in QMI published dailies such as the Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, Vancouver Sun, London Free Press, Calgary Sun, Winnipeg Sun and Edmonton Sun.

Photo Credits
Mike Keenan: Intercontinental Hotel view, security measures, poolside, conspicuous consumption, locals relaxing, fountain, woman, air quality, dive centre, fountain, park discussions, taxi, two boys.

If you go
This Destination
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Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan: http://www.kinghussein.gov.jo/tourism1.html
King Abdullah II: http://www.kingabdullah.jo/homepage.php
Royal Jordanian Airlines: http://www.rja.com.jo/default.aspx
Visit Jordan: http://www.visitjordan.com
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aqaba
Wikitravel: http://wikitravel.org/en/Aqaba

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Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
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Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/


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