Omar Maani, the mayor of Amman, has been dubbed 'the man with a plan' because of his blueprint for the redevelopment of Jordan's capital city. He is also extremely busy. So busy, in fact, that he only agreed to an interview if it lasted no longer than 10 minutes. In the end, the meeting was cancelled after he was whisked off to see the US presidential candidate, Barack Obama, who was in town on the same day as part of his Middle East tour. But days later, Mr Maani finally found time to chat about his ambitions for the city he loves.
Since becoming the mayor of Amman in 2006, Mr Maani has seen his blueprint win the 'city of the year' award at last year's World Leadership Awards in Town Planning. He was also named among the top 30 most powerful people in the country by Jordan Business magazine. "The Amman plan lays the foundation for the protection, conservation and rehabilitation of Amman's wide range of cultural heritage features," he said. "These include historic and heritage town centres, landscape corridors and antiquity sites."
But his proposals for mixing skyscrapers with traditional limestone-clad buildings have been criticised in some quarters. Jordan Business accused him of turning Amman into a "cold steel-and-glass version of Dubai". Mr Maani dismisses his detractors. "Our policies incorporate major cultural heritage features as an integral part of the modern planning for the city. [That means] protecting stable historic neighbourhoods while developing community plans for those deemed most significant."
Investment from the Gulf has poured into property projects. UAE developers, for example, have ploughed more than Dh26 billion (US$7.07bn) into developments across Jordan and are heavily involved in transforming the capital. Across the city, old buildings are being torn down to make way for new ones, with skyscrapers springing up in strategic locations. One such area is Abdali Downtown, which is undergoing a facelift with the construction of a Dh11bn mixed-use project that will be home to an estimated 40,000 people when finished.
In his 'master plan', Mr Maani sees high rises as being an "integral part of Amman's urban landscape". He said designs for 30 towers had been approved by the Greater Amman Municipality and construction was expected to begin in the next 18 months. Design guidelines for new buildings have been laid down by the city's municipality, while those planned for demolition must be reviewed by the heritage committee.
When it comes to building materials, the construction code stipulates the use of limestone from the Jordan valley region, while limiting the colour palette for facades to the traditional shades of beige, white or grey. The use of reflective glass is also discouraged and developers must now build in line with environmentally friendly building regulations due to take effect early next year. That will mean using wind power technology and water recycling systems.
"The guidelines respect the unique character, scale, materials, details, craftsmanship and use in each core cultural heritage centre," Mr Maani said. Part of his vision includes the construction of Sanaya Amman, a twin-tower residential project being built by the UAE developer Limitless. Rising more than 200 metres, Sanaya Amman will have the tallest towers in Jordan. The buildings will be partly clad with limestone and will include power and water recycling systems, which are expected to save Dh7.3 million a year in running costs.
"One of the most important issues is sustainability," said Saeed Ahmed Saeed, the chief executive of Limitless. "As much as we can we use local products and resources. The buildings have been designed according to local conditions. What can be created in Dubai cannot necessarily be created anywhere else." This philosophy is reflected in other projects planned by Limitless in Jordan. The company's presence in the country can be felt the moment you step out of Queen Alia International Airport, as billboards emblazoned with the firm's logo adorn the motorway to Amman.
With key areas of the country, such as the Aqaba coastline, still largely untouched, land is ripe for development. "When we did our studies within the region, we found that Jordan was one of the strong potentials for many reasons," said Bahaa Abouhatab, a regional director at Limitless. "Some of these reasons were related to the stability in the country, while the economy has been growing without any major hiccups."
But with the Sanaya Amman project, which will take three years to complete, Limitless has to juggle the challenge of rising construction costs within the project's Dh1.1bn budget. "Construction in Jordan has changed rapidly in the last year or so," added Mr Abouhatab. "In terms of prices, it isn't much cheaper than in Dubai. But because the amount of construction is growing, we're trying to make sure that we build within the current market prices so that we produce a product that people can afford. And I'm sure we'll achieve this. We believe that we will create an icon for the capital - something that people will talk about."
Signature buildings are also being planned by other major UAE developers. Tameer is working on a Dh1.1bn residential project at the Abdali development. The project is part of the company's Dh2.9bn investment across Jordan, which includes the Dh1.8bn Al Majd housing estate in Zarqa, which is Jordan's second largest city. Damac has also been drawn to the Abdali project, where it is developing the Dh440bn Business Heights, a 20-storey commercial tower. The actual construction, though, is being carried out by another UAE firm, Arabtec, with local partner Engineering Enterprises Company (EEC).
"There are a number of UAE investors that have been licensed and are looking at plots for development within the city," added Mr Maani. UAE developers are also eyeing opportunities elsewhere in Jordan with the Dead Sea and the Aqaba coastline targeted as prime locations. In 2006, Emaar Properties, the largest property developer in the UAE by market value, formed The Dead Sea Touristic and Real Estate Investment Company with several Jordanian investors. The company is developing the Dh1.8bn Samarah Dead Sea Resort, a community project that will include residential, leisure and retail outlets. Construction on the project is now under way and EEC has won the contract to build three buildings for the development.
"Samarah Dead Sea Resort is bringing in a new lifestyle choice to Jordan and has been carefully conceptualised to integrate itself as a socio-economic tool for the region's development," said Nabil Zard Abu Jaoude, the managing director at Emaar's subsidiary in Jordan. "By offering hospitality and leisure projects, homes and a vibrant retail environment, Samarah Dead Sea Resort will significantly contribute to the tourism appeal of the Dead Sea."
But as Jordan continues its drive towards the top end of the property market, Mr Maani does not intend to lose sight of the goal set by the National Housing Initiative, a government scheme launched earlier this year to build 120,000 homes across the country for low and middle-income families, half of which will be built in Amman. "The disposable income of families in Jordan has not risen, this is why the government has intervened," he said. "Plus the last few years has seen a lot of urbanisation, with people increasingly looking to move to cities."