Special place or special zone? The future of Aqaba: this 10,000-year-old settlement has endured countless changes. Now it faces economic globalization.

AuthorGarb, Yaakov
PositionCity overview

Aqaba, a small city at the southern tip of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, perches at the margin of the desert and the waters of the Gulf of Aqaba, and would seem to be an out-of-the-way place to be attracting global economic attention. Early in the twentieth century, Aqaba was ruled by the Ottoman Turks and to an outsider's eye was just a simple fishing village. A Turkish governor described it as a hundred mud huts separated from the sea by gardens, and T.E. Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia"), who captured the town from the Turks in 1917, described the huts as having been "degraded to [their] original rubbish" by the bombardment of French and British warships. Indeed, the aerial photograph taken by the German pilot who bombed the then-recently liberated Aqaba in 1918 shows very little that seems worth bombing.




Yet Aqaba entered the twenty-first century on an entirely different note. In 2000 the Jordanian government declared the city a Special Economic Zone--a preferred tax- and duty-free site designed explicitly to attract investment and international businesses. From being a kind of sleepy, back-door entryway into Jordan known mainly for its proximity to stunning coral reefs and the archaeological wonders of Petra, Aqaba over the past eight years has become one of the most talked-about development sites in the Middle East. Billions of dollars of development projects are now in motion, radically--and perhaps irrevocably--altering the city's character, structure, appearance, and prospects. And the town's inhabitants and environmental activists are starting to wonder how to reconcile this upheaval with Aqaba's local community, heritage, and natural amenities.


Aqaba is no stranger to outside forces, having witnessed millennia of geological, environmental, social, political, and economic change. Start with the very bedrock upon which it rests. Looking out from a hillside above Aqaba and across the valley to the neighboring Israeli town of Eilat, much of what you see below is on the move. You are on the Arabian tectonic plate, traveling north a few millimeters a year, while the hotels on the other side of the valley are on the African plate, on land displaced 107 kilometers south of its Jordanian counterpart over millions of years. That fitful tectonic creep causes earthquakes, episodically destroying area towns (including, it is claimed, the biblical Sodom and Gemora, or Gomorrah).


Overhead can be seen another remarkable migration. Each spring, birds from eastern and southern Africa pass northward over Aqaba toward their European and Asian breeding grounds. After crossing the 2,000 kilometers of barren Sahel and the Sahara Desert, they follow the only land bridge between Africa and their destinations, touching down exhausted in the first possible hospitable sites at the north of the Red Sea: the green areas near the increasingly built up towns of Aqaba and Eilat. Half a billion birds of over 230 species make the trip every year.

Human comings and goings have also been fairly lively for at least 10 millennia at this place, the strategic intersection of Asia, Africa, and Europe. Archaeologists and historians have documented the delicate artifacts left by very early traders of copper and spices, as well as the more recent and solid remnants of regional powers--Roman, Byzantine, Islamic, European Crusader, Ottoman, British. The core of Aqaba, the early Islamic town called Ayla, dates to the seventh century, and for centuries beginning in the Middle Ages Aqaba was a waypoint for yet another kind of annual migration, the tens of thousands of Hajj pilgrims on their way to Mecca from Egypt, Africa, Syria, and Turkey. This source of livelihood declined, however, when Aqaba was bypassed first by the Suez canal (1869) and then by the Hejaz railway (1908), so that the town entered the twentieth century as home to only a couple dozen families.


The world wars triggered some increase in activity, as did the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, which brought a wave of refugees from Palestine. The 1948 war also elevated Aqaba's strategic significance to the newly established kingdom of Jordan, whose traditional ports of Haifa and Jaffa were now in Israel. Jordan's sole coastal access became the eight kilometers of coast at Aqaba, and the city's ports and land-based connections to them were improved. In 1965 Jordan traded Saudi Arabia 6,000 square kilometers inland to add 16 kilometers to its coast south of Aqaba.

The Arab-Israeli wars of 1956 and 1967 brought more refugees from Gaza and the West Bank. By the early 1970s Aqaba had 10,000 inhabitants and was a busy port, handling potash for export and incoming goods for Jordan, plus about 90 percent of Iraq's seaborne imports. The port's fortunes suffered after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 and Jordan came under considerable pressure to comply with international sanctions against Iraqi imports. This lull was reversed after the second Gulf war and Saddam Hussein's fall in 2003, when Aqaba again became a major port for the renewed flow of goods into Iraq, and for reconstruction efforts.

Aqaba entered the twenty-first century as a strikingly diverse and shabbily vibrant city of about 85,000 people. The town's work life centered on the port and a downtown built around a central market (souk) area. This was the heart of the city: over 90 percent of household purchases were made in the walk-able streets filled with small shops, offices, and restaurants. Every evening, as the desert cooled down, the downtown area began to bustle with people eating, shopping, or gathering at sidewalk coffeeshops to talk or smoke a nargilla (hookah, water pipe). Beginning in 2003, a new commercial area was added a few streets over from the old town, and activity spilled over into a new generation of shops, hotels, and cafes.


On the hill just above the old town was the ramshackle Shelala ("waterfall") neighborhood (slum might be a more accurate word). This was built mostly by Palestinian refugees from Gaza, who unlike West Bank refugees do not have Jordanian citizenship and formal land allocations. A series of compact, sequentially numbered neighborhoods was gradually extended northward of the city. One or two luxury hotels adjacent...

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