"Efficiency" and "a government, as light and transparent as the air" — these are the catchphrases for the Special Economic Zone of Aqaba (SEZA), an oasis in the rocky desert of southern Jordan.
At the end of the 350 kilometers (250 miles) that separate the Jordanian capital Amman from Aqaba, the country's only port and outlet to the sea, a "frontier" post greets visitors to this free trade zone, which covers 380 square kilometers (152 square miles) and which has 70,000 inhabitants.
Banners tell about investments, hotels and business centers under construction. The signs advertise how the modest town of Aqaba has been redefining itself since the SEZA authority became operational two months ago.
The SEZA is run by a council of five commissioners, each of whom is responsible for one department: investment, customs, administration and finance, environment and infrastructure. The commissioners have been carefully selected on the basis of their records, and not through personal connections, as is often the case in Jordan's civil service.
Against a background of administrative sluggishness, their task is to make SEZA an example of efficiency which will spread to other parts of the country as part of the reformist agenda of the country's young leader, King Abdullah II.
"Customs clearance formalities have already been cut from four days to two hours," the president of the authority's council, Mohamed Kalaldeh, proudly tells AFP. The authority has established a "global plan to ensure the multi-sector development of this zone, while preserving the character of Aqaba," he said.
The Aqaba coastline, located at the north of the Red Sea, on the gulf bearing the same name is 27 kilometers (17 miles) long. It incorporates a resort center, which, thanks to the large amount of coral and rare species of fish to be found there, is a major tourist attraction. The Aqaba region also has a port, an airport and an industrial zone.
"These economic activities alongside one another, because of the limited space, require a harmonious co-existence to preserve the environment," the commissioner responsible for the environment, Bilal Al-Bashir, told AFP. "Three reserves have been created on the site of the largest concentrations of coral to ensure their conservation, protected by coastguards," he said.
The environment department, which has inspection rights over all buildings in the zone, has set up environmental measures, which must be respected during the construction of any new project, and also monitors the pollution effects of boats in the port. "What helps us is that there has never been any drainage into the sea of Aqaba," Bashir adds.
A tender for international offers for the development of the special economic zone of Aqaba has been made, and an initial selection of a strategic partner will take place at the end of April, Kaladeh said. He added that 42 companies have already registered in SEZA, which hopes by 2020 to generate a total of six billion dollars in investment. Investors in this zone can benefit from substantial privileges or tax and customs exemptions.
On the southern coastline, bordering Saudi Arabia, the Egyptian tycoon Najib Sawiris and the Jordanian tourism giant Zara have already mapped out two giant development projects that will include marinas, luxury hotels, diving centers, housing and a school.
"In five years, Aqaba will have 8,000 hotel rooms compared with 2,200 today," according to the president of the SEZA authority. Meanwhile, the residents of Aqaba, who are used to a certain routine, are trying to adapt to their new life. Most are poor and see in this zone a chance to improve their incomes, but are still in shock over the changes.
For Abraham Farajian, owner of two camera shops, the free trade zone is a godsend. "Today I can import my goods directly, without passing through the agent in Amman, and as a result I am master of my own profits," says this Armenian whose family set up in Aqaba nearly 50 years ago.
Nearly 200 craftsmen and mechanics who set up stores on a public site right in the center of Aqaba have been moved to an area less attractive to tourists. "Today I am the legal owner of a shop and a piece of land of 300 square meters (3,230 square feet)," mechanic Ali Saker told AFP, adding that he was satisfied with the compensation he received.
SEZA is also in negotiations to move the nearly 10,000 residents of the Shallalah shanty town on a hill with a fine view of the sea from the heart of Aqaba. "If we are housed elsewhere with legal property rights, we will not cause any problems. The main thing is that we do not end up under a tent," Ahmad Mohammad, who has been living in the shanty for 15 years, told AFP. — (AFP, Aqaba)
by Randa Habib
© Agence France Presse 2001
© 2001 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)