For the past two days I’ve been in Aqaba on a business trip, rediscovering our beautiful southern city, so apologies for the lack of posting. I haven’t been to Aqaba for nearly three years so it was kind of exciting to see how far it had come in such a short time. Imad Fakhouri, chairman of the Aqaba Development Corporation (ADC) – the implementing arm of the ASEZA – was kind enough to give by editor and I a tour of the major developments as I will be writing a cover story this month for Jordan Business. I haven’t figured out just how to write it yet but I thought this post would be a rare and perhaps nice preview ahead of the story, while including some personal notes I wouldn’t be able to write in the mainstream.
The first thing that strikes you about Aqaba in late July is that it is pretty hot and pretty empty. There is a feeling that tourism is a bit down during a time when the weather is nearly unbearable. The second thing that strikes you are the construction cranes scattered all across the town. Incomplete buildings litter the prime real estate of the city as if it were Dubai. Mega-projects like Saraya and Ayla, that consist of a cluster of five star hotels, villas, marinas and various facilities, dominate a gigantic portion of the undeveloped beachfront.
It’s really interesting to see a city like this beginning to take shape, but like our host suggested, what’s happening in Aqaba requires a lot of patience from people. I would say the majority of the projects ADC is doing in Aqaba are based on building infrastructure. The idea is to build everything ahead of the demand instead of being caught off guard and then having to build in order to meet demand. This includes everything from transport roads to the airport to the ports to warehouses to the industrial zones and all that good stuff.
And in that field, they’ve made significant moves. The airport expansion will be incredible. And it’s not just about planes bringing in people, but about building an airport that can act as a hub for logistics and transport in the region. It also includes a growing group of pilot colleges, some of which are truly “centers of excellence”. Marwan Attallah’s school has over a dozen planes and he’s invested millions in making it a top-notch school, which it really is. They’ve got everything in there. The planes are so modern that training pilots are given their flight paths on little flash drives they stick right into the cockpit, and the learning facilities are state-of-the-art.
On a visit to the ports I got to understand the port deal in more detail, away from the media-frenzy that framed it as some plot to sell off national assets. The upgrades they’ve made to the port are pretty interesting and the new port will be pretty significant and able to handle what’s to come in the next couple of decades. Not to mention getting it out of the way from viable tourism land. The supply chain seems to be working more efficiently now, a contrast to the 2003 surge that left the port in a huge mess. Things are becoming more computerized.
The once-empty industrial zone seems to be flourishing with even one investor manufacturing laser technologies, while Dunums upon dunums of warehouses are built to be leased out for storage. Roads dedicated for trucks have been built, with massive back roads stretching between the mountains of Aqaba. Meanwhile, universities and private schools are breaking ground.
Anyways, there’s a lot more to this and hopefully you’ll all read the actual article to find out what’s what. But doing what I do, I have to say that I’m quite pleased to see that there is such a heavy focus on building the right infrastructure and the right environment that will lure investors, shippers, and tourists in the right way. The city planning is just as, if not more ambitious than what’s happening in Amman. Not only have they mapped this out, but they are really moving forward in implementing these ambitions and it should be an exciting next couple of years. I think a lot of people forget that Aqaba isn’t another Eillat or Sharm or Taba; it is not only being set up to lure tourists but to become a major economic center for the country, which is the reason most Jordanians are migrating (followed by Amman). Job creation is at an all time high, and it will continue to grow. The population of the city has nearly doubled in the past ten years, which is a significant indicator.
On a personal note, I was annoyed by the pricey hotels. They should be much cheaper this time of year, especially with more locals going to Sharm El-Sheik as an alternative. This is to say nothing of the underdeveloped retail sector, specifically effective malls that could actually lure tourists. These things will eventually emerge under projects like Saraya, but the meanwhile is what concerns me as what’s being offered now is very poor.
On a second personal note, Imad Fakhouri is a really passionate guy when it comes to Aqaba. His Harvard dissertation was about developing the city economically and he’s dedicated almost a decade, on-the-ground, in the field of Aqaba. The city’s in pretty good hands I think.
Lastly, on my way home, we were informed at the airport that the Royal Jordanian plane had a flat tire and it would take about 3 hours to replace. People of course complained but they eventually succumbed and many chose to leave and have dinner in the souk to kill the time. Those that stayed and waited in the airport were then told it would only be one and a half hours as they were sending another plane from Amman. This was around the time we were debating whether to just take a bus home. So we waited for an hour and then they announce that instead of taking off at 8 as promised, it would be at least until 12:30am. An overall 6 hour delay, at least. Most of the passengers converged on our announcer who said the wheel was on its way down to Aqaba by bus, giving everyone the option of either waiting or leaving. Most argued that they should be put up for the night at a hotel, others were missing their connecting flights. I missed the Dark Knight premiere (damn you RJ!). Anyways we ended up finding our own wheels and heading home. We got to Amman at 11:30 pm. I don’t know if the plane ever did take off, but even if they did fix it, I wouldn’t trust its safety!