Special Place or Special Zone? The Future of Aqaba

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).

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