Postcard from Aqaba: Jordan's Red Sea city pitches its flag on the business map

Nature and nurture have contributed to a relaxed atmosphere in the port city

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Mimosa and palm trees line the main streets of Aqaba, Jordan's only seaside city. The pavements are wide and unobstructed and drivers here actually stop for pedestrians at zebra crossings, unlike in the rest of the kingdom where cars do not even slow down.

The port city of 220,000 people has been slowly emerging from the shadow of better-known Egyptian resorts on the Red Sea, as well as the Israeli city of Eilat, only six kilometres across the water.

But Aqaba's development into potentially Jordan's most liveable city has been set back by the heightened tensions and insecurity in the region since Israel's war in Gaza began in October.

"Before the Gaza war, it felt like the sky was the limit in Aqaba,” a local businessman says, pointing out that most real estate expansion has been put on hold.

The war has also affected the flow of western tourists to Jordan, including cruise ship passengers arriving in Aqaba. Cruise ship traffic had been rising, with Petra and Wadi Rum, Jordan’s two most popular tourist sites, just a 90-minute drive away.

Boost from abroad

For decades, Jordan's investments in education and public services have been concentrated on the capital, Amman, undermining the possibility of economic transformations in outlying areas.

But Aqaba stands to benefit from recent western development initiatives. The US played a major role in financing and devising a plan unveiled last month for 300 projects to improve public services, education and environmental protection. This is on top of an American and European-backed drive to build water and energy mega projects in the city.

Foreign investors have also been taking up concessions offered since the early 2000s for private companies to build hotels and luxury apartments, separated by walls from the rest of the city, along large sections of the 27km coastline. Among them is Abu Dhabi Ports which awarded a concession in 2021 to develop 3.2 million square metres into apartments and hotels.

Local factors

Despite the push for development, a relatively robust zoning code has helped Aqaba to avoid the urban sprawl that blights other Jordanian cities and to retain its charm.

Set against a backdrop of red cliffs and with views of the Sinai Peninsula across the Gulf of Aqaba, the city's attractions include a coral reef that has historically obstructed maritime navigation but survived damage from passing vessels, pollution and waste to remain a draw for divers.

Direct exposure to the outside world through its port has contributed to Aqaba becoming socially distinct from the rest of the kingdom. Some restaurants have Jordanian women working as waitresses, something rarely seen outside of Amman.

While the most labour-intensive jobs are still left to foreign workers, Aqaba locals are more willing than other Jordanians to do manual work such as gardening, says the businessman, who did not want to be named.

Jordan is classified as a middle-income country by the World Bank. Its per capita income of $4,300 is on par with Egypt but less than a tenth of Israel's.

A more relaxed city

Although the bigger and more expensive private boats now mostly dock at the city's new marinas, Aqaba's ageing Royal Yacht Club still draws enough patrons for a recently opened cafe there to keep running despite the effect of the Gaza war.

Khaled Badawi opened a large coffee shop in December, when it had already become clear that the war had all but destroyed the tourist season. He named it Calma, the Portuguese word for "calm" made famous by football star Ronaldo during his celebration of a goal against Barcelona during his time with Real Madrid.

Although the yearly licence fee, rent and taxes are high, there has been enough local business to sustain the cafe, which employees 10 people, Mr Badawi says.

"The key has been not to skimp on the quality, no matter the pressures," he says.

Mr Badawi's father came to Aqaba from Amman and made a living by ferrying tourists in a new bus he bought.

Abdel Baset, the head waiter at a nearby restaurant, moved here from Amman two years ago.

"This is a more relaxed city," he says. "There are also no traffic jams."

Dureid Mahasneh, a prominent Jordanian scholar and business executive who headed the Aqaba administration in the 1980s, says the absence of water shortages that plague the rest of the country has contributed to the relatively fast pace of development in the city.

Most of Aqaba's water comes from the nearby Disi aquifer, which is also piped to Amman.

Although authorities are working to diversify the local economy, Mr Mahasneh says the city needs to offer more job opportunities and better schools to encourage more people to come.

"There are still not enough opportunities outside tourism and the port to draw people to Aqaba," he says.

Updated: June 08, 2024, 9:01 PM