Dreamscapes and Drug Towns: Jordan's Aqaba Is the Future of Segregation

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Photo courtesy of Ayla Oasis, edited by Al Bawaba
Dreamscapes and Drug Towns: Jordan's Aqaba Is the Future of Segregation
Published July 10th, 2019 - 11:40 GMT
“It’s sea-side living reinvented,” my guide told me as we drove between Ayla Oasis’ 18-hole golf course and one of its luxury residences.

“We have a 50-year vision.”

The Ayla Oasis is a multi-billion dollar development project set to transform a previously unlivable portion of Aqaba, Jordan into a paradise for the world’s elite. From building networks of man-made lagoons to importing ancient trees lining the oasis’ private shores, it is a mammoth undertaking; one that has required advanced scientific research and engineering marvels to accomplish. 

Residents can park their yacht right outside their home or relax on one of the oasis’ twelve private beaches—all made from scratch. They can go rare bird watching or chat up members of Jordan’s parliament, who regularly visit the oasis.

But in Aqaba, a dystopian nightmare brews.

Inside the protected compounds of Aqaba, life is leisurely and abundant. Outside the walls, life is barren and harsh.

As Ayla and other luxury developments construct walled-off havens for the rich, the rest of the Aqaba region faces economic deprivation that is steadily worsening.

Isolated towns around Aqaba lack the resources necessary to maintain their own roads, and some report having to rely on dangerously irradiated water for sustenance. Many of the region’s disenchanted youth, unable to find economic security, are turning to drug-smuggling as an easy way to make money. 

Employees of Ayla proudly highlighted all the new job opportunities they are providing to locals, but the most common grievance I heard while visiting the nearby towns is that “there are no jobs here.” 

While luxury projects like Ayla get help from governmental institutions to attract international investment, those same institutions neglect the crumbling towns in the region. In turn, the residents resent both the government and developments, creating a cycle that is economically and socially segregating southern Jordan.

The emergent segregation of Aqaba reflects global trends of wealth concentration, economic dispossession and rampant privatization mixed with austerity. Private luxury compounds for the super-rich are becoming a permanent fixture in communities throughout the Global South.

In Jordan, the problem contributes to increasing unemployment, radicalization, an expanding drug trade, and spiraling political instability that has proven difficult to control.

Many of the issues in southern Jordan are happening quietly, without any reporting.

I spoke to over 25 people, including workers from the luxury development companies, local and international NGOs, charities, human rights advocates, regional experts, doctors and tribal elders. Nearly everyone requested that their names be changed or withheld to protect their identity.

The ongoing political crackdown and a new censorship law in Jordan have created a tense atmosphere around publicly criticizing the government. Aid workers also hesitate to speak out against the powerful business interests developing Aqaba into a city for the hyper-wealthy, for fear the corporations could sever what limited funding they provide to local initiatives.
 

Ayla, an Escape

Ayla Oasis (Courtesy of “Ayla Oasis: Ushering in a Wave of Change")

The specter of Ayla announces itself long before the road bends towards its main entrance gate. 

Kilometers of graffiti-laden walls hide the interior of the complex, stretching around Aqaba’s roads and sidewalks until the city tapers off in the north. From outside, almost nothing of Ayla is visible.

Before Ayla began construction, the area was a militarized no-man’s land separating Israel from Jordan. Land-mines and an army presence made it too dangerous for locals to venture into, so it was largely left alone.

After over a decade of planning and building, the foundation for Ayla has been set, and a growing number of accommodations and attractions are springing up behind the walls. The ultimate goal is to create a resort where individuals can vacation or live permanently. 

The company building Ayla is called the Ayla Oasis Development Company, founded by Sabih Masri, a Palestinian-Jordanian billionare who also chairs Zara Investment Holding and the Arab Bank among others. His daughter, Sirin Masri, is the executive creative director of Ayla.

The project's initial cost is estimated at $1.5 billion, but a worker with Ayla told me it would likely cost far more.

I arranged a tour of the luxury compound with Zaid, a young, charismatic Jordanian from a town over 300 km north of Aqaba, who works with special events at Ayla. Inside the compound, Zaid used English and a lighter dialect of Arabic spoken mostly in affluent areas of Amman. After the tour when we left Ayla, he switched to the rougher, Beduin style Arabic spoken in Jordan’s south.

 

In the near-future, Ayla plans to water the grass with its sweetwater reservoirs.

 

Once we got inside Ayla Oasis, a sprawling complex of cubed white buildings, palm trees, gently rolling hills and neatly manicured roads came into view. 

Driving by a chain of differently colored in-land lagoons, Zaid explained that Ayla has four separate types of water, including seawater, freshwater and sweetwater, which all have been colored differently to match the aesthetic of the area they are located. 

Ponds in the golf course are generally darker, whereas the beaches are a crystalline light blue. To liven up the ponds, Ayla have populated them with a variety of small fish, making sure to not include any predatory species.

Zaid spared no time telling me they had chosen the sand for the beaches to specifically reflect light to make the water appear brighter and more radiant.

One of the first stops on our tour was the oasis’ main 18-hole golf course, which we perused with a company golf cart.

Ayla golf course (Courtesy of “Ayla Oasis: Ushering in a Wave of Change")

 

Our cart driver, Imad, was a professional golfer hired by Ayla to supervise the course and provide coaching to beginners, who seemed to make up the vast majority of the course’s patrons. Before joining Ayla, Imad had been coaching golf in southeast Asia.

Personally designed by world-famous golfer Greg Norman, the course has already hosted a number of international competitions, including the 2019 Jordan Mixed Open. Zaid told me the choice to host a mixed-gender tournament was strategic; to emphasize how Ayla is “all about equality,” between men and women.

 

My thoughts drifted to the intractable poverty lurking just outside the confines of this paradise.

 

The course itself is flush with spectacularly green grass, trimmed precisely and watered every five meters by a sprinkler. In the near-future, Ayla plans to water the grass with its sweetwater reservoirs.

When I note how surprising it is to see countless acres of grass thriving in the dry, desert landscape of southern Jordan, Imad said they acquired Paspalum grass genetically modified to be greener the more it is exposed to intense sunlight.

We parked at the course’s main pavilion, an open building designed to simulate the brown-red mountain ranges winding through the south of Jordan.


Ayla golf club (Courtesy of “Ayla Oasis: Ushering in a Wave of Change")

 

There, I was taken outside to the practice driving range.

Standing on the uniformly green grass, Imad offered to critique my golfing form if I wanted, which I gladly agreed to. “I play cricket, so the swing is similar to golf, but--” Imad stopped me mid-sentence. “Your balls skew to the right in the air,” he said bluntly. 

I was taken aback. “Yeah, how did you know that?” I asked.

Before that point, I had only played golf once, six years ago. I remembered being confused as to why all my balls I hit were drifting right in the air.

Imad shrugged and talked briefly about the physicality of a cricket swing, and how it may affect a golf ball. It immediately became clear to me he was a golf wizard.

I tried my luck hitting a few balls, but failed to make any real contact. “Don’t kill the ball,” Imad suggested in a calm, rehearsed tone. 

In between clumsy swings, I stood silently and peered out onto the distant mountain ranges, closing Ayla and Aqaba city in from the rest of Jordan. There was only three of us on the driving range, and no one spoke a word apart from Imad, who walked away after a few minutes. The only audible sound was a gentle wind.

Between the mountains and the Israeli resort town of Eilat in the distance, I felt alone. My thoughts drifted to the intractable poverty lurking just outside the confines of this paradise.

Sensing it too absurd to continue practicing my swing, I relinquished the club, graciously accepted an ice-cold towel, and continued on with the tour.
 

Ayla Oasis (Courtesy of “Ayla Oasis: Ushering in a Wave of Change")

Ayla is a ghost town. 

The main feature of Ayla right now is empty roads, which connect the oasis’ far-flung attractions. During our six-hour tour, I only saw one other car driving on the roads. 

The luxury labyrinth is one-third the size of the city of Aqaba, which encompasses an area of 375 km2 and has a population of about 200,000 people. In a telling contrast to Aqaba, one Ayla worker told me there’s only about 400 people in Ayla at any given point.

Translating these numbers into population density, Aqaba has a population density of 502 people per kilometer square, and Ayla has a population density of one person every three kilometers square. 

That would make Ayla Oasis easily the least densely populated city on Earth; about as dense as the Falkland Islands but significantly less dense than Mongolia, which is famed for its endless expanses of empty plains. Zaid told me that most of the built residential villas have already been purchased, but that buyers are overwhelmingly absentee investors or wealthy people with multiple homes.

While touring a residential complex that contained dozens of apartments, I met only one man who lived there. He sat in silence by a pool overlooking the empty golf course.

Ayla’s promotional material tells of a great escape from hyperactive professional life. But once you’ve escaped from the city and made it into the fortress of Ayla, the unavoidable reality sinks in. This is a place of solitude.

Currently, the only place the public can theoretically access in Ayla is B12 beach. At a steep price of 20 JD ($28) per person though, entrance to the small shore is strictly limited to those with enough disposable income.

At the bohemian-styled sitting area of B12 I met with Sirin Masri, Ayla's creative director, while she lounged with a friend. I asked her whether she was worried Ayla is too segregated from Aqaba. She admitted Ayla was indeed isolated, but said she hoped to integrate it more into Aqaba as the project developed. The next day when I met with locals of a nearby town and told them about Sirin’s hope, they scoffed.

After seeing B12, I was taken to B10; a yet more clandestine lagoon still under construction.

 

This is a place of solitude.

 

A line of ancient-looking, thick olive trees obscured the pools and sitting areas of B10 from the rest of Ayla. Zaid told me they had imported the trees from northern Jordan, and guessed they were over 1,000 years old. Beyond them, a light blue pool with a raised jacuzzi was surrounded by rooms built to look like old caves.

At the hyper-exclusive beach’s center stands an artistic interpretation of what the Tower of Babel, a structure mythologized in Genesis, may have looked like.

Grey and plain on the outside, a staircase curves up around it, spiraling toward the sky. The inside of the tower is filled with ornate hand-made paintings and designs, and a web of stairs. According to my guide, a student of the famous Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí helped design the space.

We hiked up to the top of the tower and gazed upon the landscape of Ayla. When I turned around, I could see over Ayla’s walls, into the city of Aqaba itself. It looked like a confused mess compared to the gentle, orderly domain of Ayla Kingdom.

Beyond the oasis, on Al-Farouq st., buildings haphazardly made out of multiple types of concrete and brick pressed up against each other. Floors added as families get bigger. Scaffolding jutted from the tops of incomplete apartment blocs, burnt orange tarps covered exposed rooms to the outside elements, rusty pipes and live wires dangled from balconies. Sidewalks cracked, and children roamed the streets with bikes and plastic toys, screaming at each other.

Within Ayla, monolithic, smooth white buildings dotted the endlessly rolling hills engineered specifically to be as pleasant as possible. Grass never grows above two inches, and children do not roam its streets on bikes, screaming at each other. Cameras and security patrols make sure things like this never happen inside. 

Every balcony faces the sunset. Every bush, hammock, chair and pillow is color-coordinated. Nothing is accidental.

Every meter of the complex is a meticulously maintained micro-paradise promising to instantly enhance the Instagram profile of any aspiring social media star residing in the oasis.

Even the sounds, when they are rarely heard, seem to be custom-made for luxury. A rare bird song. The subtle whoosh of a golf club.

To reinvent sea-side living, Ayla will have two distinct residential neighborhoods, two golf courses, a mini-golf course, multiple lagoons, a high-ropes course, jet skis, wakeboarding, a yacht club, five luxury hotels, 91 shops, restaurants and bars and over a dozen new beaches with different levels of exclusivity that have already nearly doubled Jordan’s coastline, though only a privileged few access them. Some employees even get access to company yachts.

While driving away from B10, I thought aloud how it seemed possible that a family could vacation exclusively at Ayla, without ever having to step foot outside the compound. A person involved in public relations with Ayla responded. “That’s the goal.”

 

A Network of Walled-Off Luxury

Ayla’s exterior wall (Ty Joplin/Al Bawaba)
 

Ayla is just one of a number of gargantuan luxury development projects taking over Aqaba.

Just outside of Aqaba lies Marsa Zayed, a $10 billion development project scheduled to privatize huge chunks of what precious little coastline Jordan has. Raha Village, its first residential portion, has already been built.

Other projects are being planned, while yet more await the opportunity to be restarted after years of preparation. For all these developments, opulence is the key word.

Combined, these projects have a total worth of more than $16 billion, which is nearly half of Jordan’s GDP.

One of the strangest examples of how billions can be flippantly pumped into Aqaba luxury development projects is The Red Sea Astrarium, a Star Trek-themed resort that was announced, delayed and announced again before failing spectacularly. 

 

Combined, these projects have a total worth of more than $16 billion, which is nearly half of Jordan’s GDP.

 

Developed by Rubicon Group Holding, a multimedia animation and entertainment company, the Astrarium would have terraformed a part of Jordan’s desert southeast of Aqaba into a hidden, luxury park built like a spaceship.

The resort would have offered international tourists the opportunity to board the USS Enterprise and enjoy a massive water park built into the rock of Aqaba’s red mountains.

Star Trek and theme park enthusiasts alike anxiously awaited the arrival of the Astrarium for nearly a decade, which would cost $1.5 billion to make. But it never came.


Astrarium (Arup)

 

When I approached former employees of Rubicon, they all described an atmosphere of chaos and mismanagement inside the company since it began hemorrhaging money in 2015. Four workers, who all requested not to be named, said they were all still owed months of back-pay.

One former employee, who had worked at the company for five years as an animator, said he is still waiting for 12 months of pay from Rubicon. 

“Management used to promise pay to keep employees,” another former worker said. “And the people from the Labour Ministry didn’t do anything [in spite] of the many complaints and lawsuits.”

“They’re all corrupt,” he said of Rubicon’s management. 

The story of the failed Star Trek-themed park is the norm for Aqaba: most development projects receive huge cash injections to jumpstart their progress before slowing down and eventually running into obstinate bureaucratic or financial issues. Half-baked and half-financed ideas are greenlit, and then fail.

As a result, thousands of acres of land in and around the city are bought by wealthy developers but lay dormant and unoccupied.

Saraya Aqaba, a project that neighbors Ayla and is roughly the size of Aqaba’s downtown, includes tens of half-built villas that have sat empty since 2009.

Inside Saraya’s abandoned compound, mounds of sand gather around the walls of unpainted grey villas and planned five-star hotels and restaurants, which at one point were marketed to represent Aqaba’s entrance into the future. Now they are ghosts haunting the city.

The prime beach real estate Saraya purchased is now inaccessible to the public.

 

The Deprived Towns Outside Aqaba

Map of southern Jordan (Al Bawaba/Google Maps)

 

“The starvation starts here,” Mohammed, a local charity worker from the south said as we passed through a militarized checkpoint marking the end of Aqaba city and the beginning of its countryside.

Khalid, the man in the passenger seat of Mohammed’s car, remained quiet. 

Both Mohammed and Khalid are from small towns neighboring the city of Aqaba. Together we toured through villages around Aqaba Governorate; villages they say have been systemically neglected.

Our first stop was al-Quwariyeh, a sprawling town of about 2,000 people that is 40 km north of Aqaba and borders Wadi Rum.

Driving through al-Quwariyeh proves a difficult task, since the roads have large chunks of them torn out. A few years ago, residents asked the local municipality to help rebuild their crumbling roads. 

Workers from the municipality responded by ripping up the areas that were the most deteriorated, but have since been sluggish in placing new roads down.

Although al-Quwariyeh hugs the main highway linking Aqaba to Jordan’s capital city of Amman, it appears completely economically isolated. Most of the homes we saw had cracked walls and simple, unfinished exteriors; a common feature in the south of Jordan, which is one of the poorest regions in the country.

From the crowd of brittle buildings, a few baroque villas stood out. “These are drug dealers’ homes,” Mohammed said.

 

“They [the youth] will take this chance, because they’re already dying."

 

One villa built on a street corner featured high walls completely surrounding it and a gold-gilded gate with dragons embossed on its facade. The owner of the villa was dead, Mohammed said. “He was killed while drug smuggling.” Parked outside most of these conspicuous villas were brand-new luxury cars with no license plates.

Because al-Quwariyeh is so economically stagnant, men in the town are faced with a choice: join the army or become a drug smuggler. The army offers a modicum of stability, but pays little. Drug smuggling is much more lucrative, but can be fatally dangerous. A growing number of young men in al-Quwariyeh and other towns in the southern region of Jordan opt to become drug smugglers.

“Most of the youth here are hopeless,” Mohammed said. “So when drug dealers come to these hopeless people, it’s a very big amount of money.”

In some cases, young men are approached by a drug dealer and offered 50,000 JD ($70,522) to smuggle a shipment of drugs into Saudi Arabia. To accomplish this task, they are given a machine gun and an unmarked luxury or off-road car to use, which they can sell if they make it back to their town alive, according to Mohammed.

“They [the youth] will take this chance, because they’re already dying,” he explained.
 

A Jordanian border guard keeps watch near Muffraq (AFP/FILE)
 

Jordan’s middle and southern regions lie along a regional drug trade route.

Illicit shipments of Captagon—a popular amphetamine in the Middle East, hashish, synthetic cannabis, heroin and cocaine are taken from Lebanon and Syria down into southern Jordan. In small, poor villages, desperate youth are persuaded to smuggle those drugs into Saudi Arabia via secretive land routes.

Because al-Quwariyeh is a quick drive to the Saudi border, it is a strategic destination from which to recruit youth.

The drugs themselves go to fuel an underground party scene in Saudi made up of the country’s bored upper-class and royal family.

The country’s anti-drug laws are stringent, but the drug scene remains consistently active and partiers will pay a comparatively higher price for drugs than their counterparts in the neighboring countries of Jordan, Egypt and Syria. For example, Saudis will pay 7 JD ($10) for a single Captagon pill, whereas the same pill will only go for about 1 JD ($1.40) in Jordan.

According to official figures from Jordan’s Public Security Directorate (PSD), narcotics agents seized 47 million Captagon pills, 2,093 kilograms of hashish, 155 kilograms of “joker” (synthetic cannabis), 74,738 kilograms of marijuana, 10,557 kilograms of heroin, 1,693 kilograms of cocaine and 820,790 pills of other types in 2018 alone.

Residents of al-Quwariyeh told me Saudi and Jordanian border guards alike will use lethal force to neutralize drug smugglers. “They will kill you if they see you,” Mohammed said. Along the border with Syria, firefights are known to break out between armed smugglers and the Jordanian army.

While we traversed through the desert east of al-Quwariyeh, an unmarked, sand-colored Toyota passed us then drove off the road towards the Saudi border to the east. “He’s a drug-smuggler,” Mohammed and Khalid acknowledged.

Ten minutes north of al-Quwariyeh, in the smaller village of Humayma, the situation is even more dire.

Whereas al-Quwariyeh’s roads were partially destroyed, most of Humayma have no roads to speak of.

Outside the town’s only supermarket, I spoke with Hussein al-Jaramiyeh, the tribal head of Humayma and vice president of its tourism committee. Al-Jaramiyeh was eager to air his town’s grievances with me, and he spoke quickly about the multitude of problems Humayma faces.

“Life here is very poor,” he said, “and our biggest problem is water.” The town only has access to water for two days a week, four hours per day, and the safety of the water itself is questionable. Al-Jaramiyeh said his town gets water from the Disi aquifer.

In 2009, Jordan’s government began a $1.1 billion project to pump water from the Disi aquifer to Aqaba, Amman. The only problem with the plan: the water is highly radioactive.

 

“Life here is very poor,” he said, “and our biggest problem is water.”

 

An independent study of the aquifer conducted by Avner Vengosh of Duke University revealed the water to have levels of radiation far exceeding safe drinking standards. “High levels of naturally occurring and carcinogenic radium isotopes have been measured in low-saline and oxic groundwater from the Rum Group of the Disi sandstone aquifer in Jordan,” Vengosh writes.

“The combined 228Ra and 226Ra activities are up to 2000 percent higher than international drinking water standards.” Long-term exposure to these types of radiation result in a higher risk of developing bone cancer.

To compare the Disi aquifer with another irradiated source of water, Vengosh cites a study on a New Jersey water reservoir, which led to a 90 percent increase in bone cancer for individuals drinking the water. Vengosh found that radiation levels in Disi were nine to 18 times higher than the studied reservoir in New Jersey, so “the cancer rate upon long-term consumption of this water is expected to be significantly higher.”

The government dismissed the study, saying they would dilute the aquifer enough with other sources of water to bring down the radiation levels, but the study’s findings suggest the dilution will still not be enough.

Evidently, the sweetwater lagoons feeding Ayla’s grass and the desalination plants generating Ayla’s ponds are not helping Humayma get safe and regular access to drinking water.

On top of the town’s water issues, Al-Jaramiyeh fears that Humayma’s ties to ancient history will be lost due to governmental mismanagement. 


Ancient site outside Humayma (Ty Joplin/Al Bawaba)

 

Right outside the town, ancient ruins from the Roman, Abbasid and Ottoman civilizations sit virtually untouched. Al-Jaramiyeh started a local organization to promote his town’s history and repeatedly contacted the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority (ASEZA) to develop Humayma’s infrastructure. He also petitioned Jordan’s Ministry of Antiquities to restore the ancient site and promote it.

He never received a response from either governmental body. 

We drove through the desert to reach the archaeological site, avoiding the broken road along the way.

Above the sand, a dense network of mostly buried houses, churches and mosques stood. You could uncover coins and other precious artifacts if you dug out the sand, Mohammed joked, adding that there was a mosaic somewhere in the ruins, but he doesn’t remember where.


Ancient mosque outside Humayma (Ty Joplin/Al Bawaba)

 

The current tourist scheme in Jordan emphasizes Wadi Rum, Aqaba and Petra as global destinations, leaving countess historical sites, such as the one in Humayma, to slowly gather sand until it disappears completely from view.

In al-Quwariyeh as well, an Ottoman-era castle remains unvisited by tourists, even though locals say the castle was the starting point for the Great Arab Revolt, which helped solidify Jordan’s case for independence from colonial occupiers.

“I’m afraid of losing our history,” al-Jaramiyeh said.


The Money Stays Inside the Compound

Master plan of Ayla Oasis (Ty Joplin/Al Bawaba)
 

Because the luxury developments like Ayla are designed to physically segregate wealthy individuals from locals, money often flows easily to them and within them, but it rarely leaks out past the compounds’ high walls.

And the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority (ASEZA), which oversees development around Aqaba city and the towns near it, contributes to this segregation, locals and aid workers told me.

ASEZA is a semi-autonomous government that has the power to make unique laws for the areas it governs. It is meant to modernize Aqaba and its feeder towns like al-Quwariyeh and Humayma while attracting international investment to the Aqaba coast.

However, non-profit workers and tribal heads in the Aqaba governorate say ASEZA focuses a disproportionate amount of its attention to attracting investment, while neglecting the needs of the local population.

According to a public statement from ASEZA itself, its vision is to be “a leading institution to enable the Aqaba Special Economic Zone to become an investment, tourist and global tourist destination on the Red Sea.”

To many locals who don’t have the privilege of living inside the guarded luxury compounds, they see ASEZA as an antagonist or an accomplice to the worsening conditions of their community.

In al-Quwariyeh, I met with Abdullah Swiliheen, a tribal elder who began our conversation with a quip that “100 people in Jordan have all the money.”

During our talk, Swiliheen said he spoke with the former head of ASEZA about the abhorrent conditions of his town’s infrastructure and about the lack of economic opportunities there. The head of ASEZA promised to fix the roads and address the economic issues, but was soon thereafter replaced by a new director.

The replacement never fulfilled his predecessor’s promises.

A worker with a local non-governmental organization (NGO) in Aqaba, who requested not to be named, further lamented an ASEZA-implemented law banning home businesses from operating in the Aqaba area. She fears the law could torpedo NGO efforts at providing micro-loans to enterprising women who want to forge economic opportunities of their own, even though the micro-loans themselves are being funded by ASEZA.

“If the Prime Minister says it’s okay in the rest of the country, why is it not okay here in Aqaba?” She asked.

ASEZA’s current master plan, or Vision 2001-2020,  describes plans to expand the airport, promote investment into the luxury compounds and develop industrial ports south of the city in exhaustive detail. But the document fails to lay out any extensive plan to modernize the surrounding towns, or ensure an adequate living standard for Aqaba’s residents besides listing plans to upgrade Aqaba's wastewater irrigation and roadways.

Vision 2001-2020 does, however, call for the luxury compounds to make all their beaches open to the public; a call most seem to have ignored. 

The master plan explicitly labels the residential buildings in the Old Town and Shallalah neighborhoods in Aqaba as "substandard," but does not lay out a path forward to improve or rebuild them. Instead, it proposes superficial renovations to their outward appearance in the hopes of appealing to tourists.

I also obtained a leaked document detailing ASEZA's plan to create a new airline servicing Aqaba’s airport, called “Air Aqaba.” 

Launching Fly Aqaba is described as ASEZA’s main ambition for the year 2025. According to the document, Ayla Oasis was the first company to demonstrate interest in the airline and stood ready to invest $3 million into the endeavour. Attempts to launch the airline have been halted, according to a source familiar with the matter.

Repeated attempts to contact representatives from ASEZA were met with no reply.

For the private development companies like Ayla and Marsa Zayed, they argue they have a positive impact on the local community by providing new job opportunities to people in Aqaba and the surrounding towns.

But the training and English language requirements of hospitality jobs mean companies hire individuals from more-affluent areas of Jordan or outside the country where the quality of education is comparatively much better than in the under-resourced Aqaba Governorate. 


Master plan of Ayla Oasis (Ty Joplin/Al Bawaba)

 

“Language is a problem,” one anonymous aid worker in Aqaba who requested to not named for fear that private developments could sever their working relationship with her organization told me. “They need English. And most of our youth have problems with English: they can’t communicate.”

When I asked her whether the luxury developments are bettering the community, the aid worker said, “they think they are, but in my opinion no.” 

“All the time, they said they can’t find qualified people to work for them, and they bring people from outside Aqaba and Jordan to work in their projects,” she added. As a result, locals from Aqaba are largely cut out of the competition for jobs in the luxury compounds. 

 

“The trees of Aqaba are green; the trees of Quwariyeh are dying.”

 

One local Aqaba resident said places like Ayla are “thieves,” who only hire “outsiders from Amman, Madaba or Karak,” leaving locals to look only at the villas and hotels from a distance. An employee with Ayla admitted to me it was burdensome to hire local workers, so they prefer to hire people from outside the governorate who have more training and expertise.

What few locals luxury developments do hire are often exploited and underpaid for their work. One Aqaba man was hired under the auspices that he would be supervising the safety of guests, but instead he spent his time picking up trash in the compound. 

He worked 12-hour days without a contract or health insurance, and was paid overtime under the table, so the company could avoid contributing to his pension and social security. 

“Look at this and look at what they are doing to the youth… They’re abusing youth,” the aid worker told me of the luxury developments.

“Respect them so they can feel they can come back and work for you,” she pleaded, adding that the entire private sector of Aqaba treats locals this way.

The luxury developments like Ayla are erecting “small cities within cities,” without considering the restricted access locals could have, she continued.

“What about the other people who can’t go there?”

Back in al-Quwariyeh, Abdullah Swiliheen said he suspects Aqaba will be divided into little pieces and sold off to the highest private bidder, steadily making the city into countless, inaccessible spaces. What he fears most though, he has already begun to observe: the slow death of his town.

“You can see with your own eyes,” he said. “The trees of Aqaba are green; the trees of Quwariyeh are dying.”

“People are very angry here,” he added. “It’s unfair.”

 

The Impossible Task Left to NGOs

Protests erupt across Jordan to protest increases sales taxes (AFP/FILE)
 

Although the luxury developments and ASEZA are providing limited funding through their corporate social responsibility promises, every aid worker I spoke to said it was not nearly enough to offer sufficient basic services or vocational skills to the local population.

Nonetheless, they remain one of the only sources of funds for charities and nonprofits in the south.

The task of economically developing the rest of Aqaba and its surrounding towns is then assigned to chronically under-resources NGOs. All the while, the metropole near them orients itself completely around luxury tourism.

In Aqaba, I met with Salam, an aid worker who has lived and worked in the city for over a decade.

She said that remote areas in southern Jordan have formed “poverty pockets,” where a stagnant economy and physical isolation have left entire towns in need of constant interventions from NGOs.

This job is made even more challenging because NGOs and local governments rarely communicate with each other to coordinate projects, according to two sources in Aqaba's NGO scene. One worker even explained NGOs will often keep information about their respective projects secret from other organizations.

“There is no cooperation between people working in Aqaba,” which leads to multiple NGOs and charities performing redundant tasks and services, Salam said.

“It’s very difficult to work in development here,” she added.

Further to the north, in the isolated towns between Amman and Aqaba that don’t receive limited funding from luxury developments or entities like ASEZA, the challenge to economically integrate them is nearly impossible.

Strained local organizations are stuck in a losing battle trying to compete with the illicit drug trade as the primary vehicle of economic welfare. 

Nowhere is this struggle more evident than in the remote town of Bader*.

Located on the backroads of Jordan, Bader is a poor village of a few hundred people. It’s firmly wedged into one of country’s many poverty pockets.

 

“We were completely shocked to realize that the kitchen was just three bricks."

 

The Beduin villagers of Bader were once nomads, but the government forcibly settled them into the town and quickly built houses for them as part of a nation-wide program to modernize Jordan.

Despite this, villagers still rely on more traditional style tents to be primary space for social life. 

In this barren town, like many others in the region, men only have a few options to gain employment: sheep herding, joining the army, or drug smuggling.

A fair number chose drug smuggling, judging by the BMWs and Mercedes parked outside otherwise squalid, unfinished houses. A woman from the village even tried to speak out against the pervasive drug smuggling that was happening around her, but her family locked her in their house in an attempt to silence her protests, according to a source familiar with the incident.

To try and jumpstart the town’s motionless economy, two aid workers, Noor and Yasmine, attempted to establish a communal kitchen there in collaboration with a local council, which had recently received a 5,000 JD grant from USAID.

In the absence of any real economic life in the town, the kitchen was many local women’s best bet for a more prosperous life. The plan was to train women for the kitchen, operate it and then sell the goods created to other cities. 

There was no extra money for monitoring and evaluation, follow-ups or consultants to make sure the kitchen would be built to last, so the two aid workers I spoke to joined the project as voluntary consultants.
 
“What was conveyed to us what was they already had the kitchen and everything was set up and now they just need[ed] training,” Noor told me.

“We were completely shocked to realize that the kitchen was just three bricks,” stuck in the ground. “It was completely dysfunctional, it was not even a building yet,” she said.

Noor added that throughout the project, there was a lack of guidance from USAID and the local government council, which both seemed utterly disconnected from the realities of Bader. 

 

Soon after, USAID abruptly halted parts of its operations in Jordan, leaving towns like Bader with one less lifeline to try and integrate itself into an organic, legal economy.

 

“We realized that there was absolutely nobody in charge of this project,” Yasmine said. Despite a local government full of engineers capable of overseeing the technical aspects of the kitchen’s construction and maintenance, “nobody got shit done.”

Both volunteers said the representatives from USAID seemed more intent on ticking the boxes their donors want to be ticked rather than genuinely providing a vehicle for economic stability to the people of Bader.

“USAID just throws money into the hands of these people, and they don’t follow-up. They shouldn’t come in with just money, they should come in with technical help,” Noor said.

Yasmine agreed, quickly adding: “we felt it was really unfair that in some database somewhere, it would be documented that this village had received a grant, where in fact no one really followed up with where the money went.” 

The volunteers decided to take it upon themselves to build the kitchen directly in collaboration with a local community leader rather than going through USAID or the local governmental chamber. Finding that the original economic plan to import food from across the country into the village was also nonsensical, they scrapped it and redrafted one that fit within the constraints of Bader’s limited and isolated position.

A makeshift kitchen was built, and training sessions began to teach women how to operate it.

But the tiny trickle of money, plus a confluence of poor management from USAID and the local government ultimately sabotaged the effort. Facing mounting technical issues, the kitchen was forced to close. 

Soon after, USAID abruptly halted a part of its operation in Jordan helping to build small businesses, leaving towns like Bader with one less lifeline to try and integrate itself into an organic, legal economy. The community leaders in Bader are now seeking alternate sources of funding to re-open the kitchen.

Building a single kitchen for women in a stagnant town proved to be less feasible than building a new luxury city in the desert for a few jet setters.

Structurally, NGOs face a comparative disadvantage to local governments or powerful corporations. While the latter entities can construct infrastructure, create businesses and provide incentives to attract investment, effectively building an entire community’s economy from scratch, NGOs can merely fund individual projects, which rely on pre-existing development to succeed and neglect core issues overlooked by donors.

Other central factors like minimum wage and guarantees of workplace safety, which both influence women’s employment, are implemented by the government; not NGOs.


An Alienated People, a Hollow Economy

Demonstrators amass near Jordan’s Fourth Circle, protesting against austerity measures (AFP/FILE)

 

The economic situation in Jordan, for most, has worsened over the last decade.

Unemployment is slowly rising, and while the overall rate stands at 18.5 percent, youth unemployment is a much starker 40 percent. Only about 14 percent of women are employed. Wages have remained stagnant while the cost of living increases due to government-imposed austerity measures, which have dramatically raised the price of fuel, bread and gas.

Protests have consistently broken out against the cutbacks, which drawn hundreds and sometimes thousands of disenchanted working and middle class Jordanians into the streets.

The country’s debt, which is equivalent to 94 percent of its GDP, has become a national priority, and the government has begun squeezing the public sector. In turn, thousands are being driven into poverty. In 2014, the last time poverty was officially measured, the World Bank found that a third of the population lived below the poverty line for at least one quarter of the year.

International donors funding Jordan’s development and services for refugees are slowly leaving the country and refocusing their attention towards other crises. At the same time, Gulf countries are withholding multi-billion dollar aid loans for political reasons.

Many of these issues are amplified in the relatively poor, isolated towns of Jordan’s south.

“There are common issues and challenges facing the south like unemployment, poverty, social injustice, drugs, infrastructure, and education,” Osama Muhsen, a senior program officer with Hayat Center, an independent government watchdog told me.

“This marginalization came due to lack of proper planning by the governorate at the national level and centralizing all the resources in the capital,” he said, adding that when individuals from the south reach positions of power, they tend to stay in Amman rather than advocating for their southern communities’ local interests.

As a result, few public voices speak on the south’s behalf. 

 

“Gaps in the education and employment nexus push young people towards extremists movements or to resort to drugs and crime."

 

This has prompted some southern youth to take matters into their own hands. In April 2019, 50 young men from the southern town of Ma’an walked 200 km to Amman to protest the unemployment and harsh conditions facing them and their communities.

After 13 days of sleep-ins outside the Royal Court, the government vowed to provide thousands of new jobs, but later back-tracked from the promise.

To cope with the mounting deprivation, an increasing number of Jordanians are turning to drugs.


Anwar al-Tarawneh, director of Jordan’s Anti-Narcotics Department, reported a 32 percent increase in drug addiction, possession and smuggling cases since 2017, which is on top of steady increases from 2009-2017.

So far, the AND has responded by implementing harsher penalties, which further alienate marginalized individuals.

This economic and social exclusion could have grave political consequences as they drive some towards political and religious radicalization, Barik Mhadeen, a human security expert with the WANA Institute in Amman explained.

“In Karak,” a southern region in Jordan, “gaps in the education and employment nexus push young people towards extremists movements or to resort to drugs and crime,” he said, citing a Feb 2019 study where WANA researchers interviewed 91 individuals from Karak on their political attitudes and grievances. 

Interviewees for the study expressed that punitive measures from the state, “in tandem with rampant unemployment and a lack of social justice,” reinforce hostility against the government and push individuals toward extremism. 

Mhadeen added that drug abuse represents, “one option young people could resort to, radicalization being another,” which for him underscores, “the need to address the structural issues which enhance different ‘destructive’ choices, radicalization included.”

There may even be a direct link to drug abuse and radicalization.

Rik Coolsaet, a professor at Ghent University and senior fellow at the Belgium-based Egmont Institute, told me, “the idea that you can redeem from 'past sins, ‘such as womanizing, alcohol, drug use and other crimes, by joining the jihadi scene has proven to be a powerful recruiting tool.”

Over 3,000 of ISIS’ fighters hailed from Jordan. According to one study, there were 315 fighters joining ISIS per 1 million people; giving Jordan, by far, the highest recruitment rate in the world.

Collectively, these issues threaten to destabilize Jordan, but inside the haven of compounds like Ayla, they simply aren’t visible.

The hard choices individuals face there is which pool to sunbathe by. 

As these luxury developments grow in size, and more pop up around the city, they will further squeeze Aqaba’s economy to work exclusively for them, even if none of the wealth trickles down to the local population.

Inadvertently this process is already changing the city’s facade to make it more friendly to tourists.

The main roundabout in the city’s downtown is officially called the Great Arab Revolt Circle. It is named so because at the midway point of the Arab Revolt in 1917, local tribal forces advised by British army officer T.E. Lawrence took the strategic port city from the Ottoman Empire in a surprise attack. The raid allowed the British army to directly supply the anti-Ottoman insurrection from the sea. It also proved to be a key moment in the war, and the city has since celebrated its role in freeing Jordan from far-away rulers.

But if you actually call this roundabout the ‘Great Arab Revolt Circle,” like I did with locals in Aqaba, you’ll get a chuckle, and they’ll correct you.

“We call it Mack Circle,” they’ll say, “after the McDonald's nearby.”

 

*The original town's name has been changed to protect the community leaders. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.
 


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