x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Big changes for land and life in Aqaba

Major developers including Abu Dhabi's Al Maabar are building multibillion-dollar projects near Jordan's Aqaba port.

Marsa Zayed, will include 3,000 hotel rooms, luxury marinas, a cruise ship terminal, 30,000 villas, town houses and apartments, as well as shopping districts, according to the master plan. Salah Malkawi for The National
Marsa Zayed, will include 3,000 hotel rooms, luxury marinas, a cruise ship terminal, 30,000 villas, town houses and apartments, as well as shopping districts, according to the master plan. Salah Malkawi for The National

Part of the rugged mountain landscape that is the backdrop of the Jordanian Red Sea port of Aqaba has been torn away, while large quantities of rubble have been shifted to make way for pipelines.

These preparations are for a US$10 billion (Dh36.73bn) residential and tourism project - the biggest in Jordan's history - being built by Abu Dhabi's Al Maabar.

All this is taking place behind hoardings that stretch for more than 2km along the coastal road overlooking the sparkling, deep blue waters of the Red Sea. The project, called Marsa Zayed, will include 3,000 hotel rooms, luxury marinas, a cruise ship terminal, 30,000 villas, town houses and apartments, as well as shopping districts, according to the master plan.

In addition to changing Aqaba's physical landscape, the waterfront development is expected to alter dramatically the economic landscape of the city, which has just over 100,000 inhabitants.

"It will transform the economy," says Nael Raja Al Kabariti, the chairman of the Jordan Chamber of Commerce. "The investment will reflect positively in fighting unemployment and help raise the income of the average Jordanian people, which will give more stability to Jordan and the area."

Jordan has not been immune to the popular protests that have occurred in the Arab world this year, but the unrest there has been mild compared with the uprisings in neighbouring Syria. Still, the regional unrest has hurt Jordan's tourism sector, with a 17 per cent fall-off in the number of European visitors in the first eight months of the year, according to the country's tourism ministry.

Aqaba already plays an important role in Jordan's economy. It is the country's only seaport, and the road through Aqaba runs to Saudi Arabia. The coastal Israeli city of Eilatand Egypt's Sinai region are visible from Aqaba.

"Typically, Jordanians in Amman come to Aqaba for holidays, so as a secondary home destination, they want to build Aqaba as a bigger city and create employment," says Deepak Jain, the head of strategic consulting at Jones Lang LaSalle in the Middle East and North Africa. "It has potential to become a larger tourism destination than it is right now."

Aqaba is less than two hours by road from Jordan's biggest tourism magnets: the ancient ruins of Petra and the desert valley of Wadi Rum.

The city already has some upmarket resorts, including a Kempinski hotel as well as an InterContinental and Radisson Blu. It is also known to offer spectacular diving.

Aqaba is aiming to increase its hotel room supply from just 4,000 to 20,000 over the next 10 years.

Plans have even been recently announced for an Aqaba theme park with a Star Trek attraction.

But work on the existing developments, including many new hotels, has been slow, and locals complain it is all taking too long.

There are two other immense projects in the city. One is Saraya, which is to feature hotels managed by Jumeirah Group and Starwood Hotels and Resorts. Work on the project, being developed by companies including Saudi Oger, stalled almost three years ago, although Aqaba Development says it has raised $240 million of fresh cash from Abu Dhabi to restart work. Meanwhile, another vast tourism project, Ayla, which is to include a Greg Norman golf course, is taking longer than expected.

Progress on Marsa Zayed has also been slow.

"Hopefully, we will start asking for quotations to start building the project in the first quarter of next year," says Yousef Al Nowais, the managing director of Al Maabar. "Now it is mainly the infrastructure - the roads, electricity, fibre optics."

Work on the first phase, which includes homes and a mosque based on the design of Abu Dhabi's Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, is expected to be completed in 2014.

Mohammed Turk, the chief executive of Aqaba Development says Marsa Zayed "will definitely put us on the map".

He explains that Aqaba's existing port will have to be relocated along the coast to make way for the marina development and cruise ship terminal that are part of Marsa Zayed.

Of $16bn of investment in tourism and property projects in Aqaba, Mr Turk says most is from Abu Dhabi, with Saudi Arabia next.

Ahmed Mohammad, 42, a taxi driver in Aqaba, laments that the developments are slow, as he is eager to see the changes.

"It's good for Aqaba," he says, referring to Marsa Zayed. "You'll have some tourists, more people. Of course it's very good."

rbundhun@thenational.ae