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Jordan's New Envoy: Environment Key to Thirsty Nation's Future
The Washington Diplomat / February 2011

By Larry Luxner

Jordan, one of the five most water-deprived countries on Earth, has more than just a casual interest in developing technologies such as solar energy, water desalination and nuclear power. Its very survival depends on it.

So says Alia Hatoug-Bouran, Jordan’s former environment minister and recently minted ambassador to the United States.

But Bouran — the first woman ever to represent the Hashemite Kingdom in Washington — said Jordan can’t do it alone. To realize its full potential, she said, her thirsty desert nation of 6.3 million people needs U.S. and European investment, as well as a comprehensive Middle East peace settlement that encourages greater cooperation with neighboring Israel.

“When I graduated from Moscow State University in 1983, the environment at that time was not a priority,” she explained during an interview last month at the Jordanian Embassy. “Unfortunately, you see this in many parts of the world, particularly in Third World countries. The environment should, but doesn’t, have an important political role in decision-making.”

Bouran, who began teaching environmental science at the University of Jordan in 1984, was tapped in the early 1990s by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to represent Jordan in preliminary peace talks with Israel.

“I was assigned to the environment, in addition to the other tracks I was involved in,” she told The Washington Diplomat.“When those talks concluded in 1994, there was such a beautiful sense of achievement. I never went back to the University of Jordan. This is how I started with my diplomatic career. After Jordan and Israel signed the [peace] agreement in October 1994, I stayed with the foreign ministry for another two years.”

During that time, Bouran served as Jordan’s representative to the Geneva-based International Union for Conservation of Nature, which ranks as the world’s oldest and largest global environmental network.

She went on to become secretary-general of Jordan’s Ministry of Tourism (1998-2001), followed by ambassadorial appointments to Luxembourg (2001-03), Norway (2002-03) and Belgium and the European Commission (2001-03).

Two cabinet posts followed — minister of environment (2002-04) and minister for tourism and antiquities (2003-07). After serving in London, Bouran presented her credentials to President Obama on Sept. 14 last year.

Bouran, 55, is fluent in Arabic, English and Russian. She’s published 26 scholarly articles in the field of environmental sciences. Her husband, Ishaq, is an electronics engineer with his own company back in Amman. Their 22-year-old daughter Marian just graduated from London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, and their 18-year-old son just entered his first year of college in the United States.

“The most important thing we need right now is desalination plants,” she told us, noting that tens of thousands of Jordanian families receive potable water only once or twice per week. “This is not a luxury; it’s a necessity, and it’s vital for our development.”

Toward that end, in October the Jordanian government signed a $275 million compact with the U.S. government’s Millennium Challenge Corp. (MCC) that hopes to boost the supply of fresh water to Jordan’s poorest households.

At the Oct. 25 signing ceremony — attended by Bouran in her first official act as ambassador — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said U.S. taxpayer money will help nearly 2 million Jordanians gain regular access to clean water, many for the first time ever.

That, according to Bouran, “says a lot about the strength of our bilateral relationship and also reflects how highly the U.S. considers Jordan’s needs in terms of development.”

The MCC compact targets Zarqa, one of Jordan’s poorest cities, by rehabilitating the municipal water supply network for households and businesses and expanding wastewater collection network into neighborhoods lacking access to proper sewer systems.

“At a time when many families here in the United States are tightening their own belts and making difficult sacrifices, we are making this investment in your country because we believe in Jordan’s promise and we are committed to Jordan’s future,” Clinton said. “Americans understand that a prosperous Jordan is good for the region and good for the world.”

Bouran pointed out that Jordan is the only Arab country that meets the benchmarks of accountability for eligibility in the MCC (Oman’s application is pending).

Yet the kingdom isn’t exactly an oasis of American-style democracy either. A constitutional monarchy with representative government, the country has been ruled by King Abdullah II since 1999 following the death of his father King Hussein, who took power in 1952.

Striking a delicate balancing act, the pro-American, pro-Western kingdom has tried to incorporate some democratic reforms, although it’s also worked to keep a large Islamist movement from gaining too much power in parliament (as a result, that opposition group, the Islamic Action Front, boycotted the last parliamentary election in November 2010).

And although the country has escaped the kind of popular uprisings threatening Arab autocracies such as Tunisia and Algeria, many of the same seeds of discontent permeate Jordan, including joblessness and high food and fuel prices.

In fact, the government — perhaps fearing the kind of unrest rocking Tunisia — recently announced a $169 million plan to slash the rising cost of fuel and basic commodities.

With limited natural resources and a per-capita GDP of $4,700, Jordan’s economy is heavily dependent of foreign investment and aid, particularly from the United States, a major benefactor for the past 60 years.

To that end, the United States is increasing its aid to Jordan by $100 million to help the cash-strapped government as it grapples with a record budget deficit of more than $2 billion. The grant is in addition to the $363 million in regular economic assistance to Jordan for the 2010 fiscal year; it has received nearly $7 billion in development assistance from the United States since 1952.

According to the State Department, those funds target areas such as education, access to water, resource management and conservation, energy, youth and poverty alleviation programs, maternal-child health, energy, governance, macroeconomic policy, workforce development, and competitiveness.

A longtime U.S. ally, Jordan was also the first of the Arab League’s 22 member nations to sign a free trade agreement with the United States, back in 2000. That made it only the third such free trade agreement in U.S. history, following similar FTAs with Israel and NAFTA partners Canada and Mexico.

“It’s important to show confidence in the Jordanian market, and that Jordan is able to deliver on international commitments,” Bouran told The Diplomat. “The FTA has attracted companies from all over the world to come and invest in Jordan, opening their eyes to our possibilities.”

In 2010, foreign investment in Jordan totaled $293.3 million, a 7.8 percent increase from the $272.1 million registered the year before, according to government statistics. Iraqi investment accounted for 23.8 percent of the total, followed by Bahrain (20.6 percent) and Saudi Arabia (12 percent).

One area especially ripe for investment is nuclear energy, following the recent discovery of uranium deposits in southern and western Jordan, about 250 kilometers from Amman. A nuclear reactor could save the desert kingdom the 20 percent of its GDP now spent on importing fossil fuels from neighboring Iraq and other oil-rich countries. By 2030, in fact, nuclear energy is expected to supply one-third of Jordan’s rapidly growing electricity needs.

“We don’t have oil, but our uranium is of good quality, and there’s enough of it to build a reactor that could power water desalination plants,” Bouran explained, noting that the Israelis have raised no objections to the idea of a Jordanian nuclear power industry for civilian purposes — and neither have the Americans.

Khalid Touqan, chairman of the Jordan Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said in a Dec. 14 public forum that a Jordanian-French venture has drilled 3,500 boreholes in the central region and has found most uranium deposits near surface level. He said Jordan also has the potential to convert 140,000 tons of uranium from the country’s vast phosphate reserves. “If we extract half of it, this will suffice us for the next 100 years,” he told journalists. Jordan has already signed nuclear cooperation accords with Algeria, Canada, China, Kazakhstan, Japan, Romania and Russia.

Published reports put the value of Jordan’s uranium reserves at around $7 billion. Touqan said his agency will soon float an international tender to invite bids for the design and construction of Jordan’s first uranium mine.

All that uranium makes nuclear power a viable option for Jordan — whose territory contains 2 percent of the world’s known reserves — not to mention the fact that nuclear plants are carbon-neutral and therefore do not contribute to global warming.

“For the first time in our history, we are sitting on a commodity that people are interested in,” King Abdullah recently told The Times of London. “A lot of countries are knocking on our door.”

In addition, Jordan has enormous potential for both solar and wind energy. It’s blessed with an abundance of sunshine and one of the highest annual daily averages of solar irradiance in the world — and some places in Jordan see wind speeds averaging 7 meters per second, compared to 4.5 meters per second for effective power generators. It also boasts untold billions of tons of oil shale deposits, though oil-shale extraction is hardly economical as long as crude oil prices remain relatively low.

But Jordan’s full potential cannot be unleashed until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is settled once and for all, says Bouran.

“I see the potential for great success when peace prevails in the Middle East. I see megaprojects in energy, infrastructure, communications, environmental protection, investment and trade,” she said. “We’d like to see Israel as part of the region, a country among countries — and not in the way Israel is acting right now. The benefits of peace are enormous, and the way we see achieving that peace is through the two-state solution, which Jordan has been working on for years.”

Bouran declined to comment though on Israeli settlement building in the West Bank — which is back in full swing after a temporary moratorium last year — or on the current failed state of peace talks. Nor would she say anything about the split between Mahmoud Abbas’s pro-Western Fatah movement, which controls the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip and openly advocates Israel’s destruction.

“The political situation is not helping,” she offered. “At the beginning, right after the Israel-Jordan peace treaty, there was so much promise and hope. I know because I was there. Both parties were extremely sincere in concluding this agreement.”

Asked what kind of relationship she has with Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren — whose embassy is less than half a block away from Jordan’s along International Drive — Bouran was rather vague. “As part of my courtesy calls, of course I paid Michael Oren a visit,” she said. “I see most ambassadors of countries we work with — European ambassadors, Arab ambassadors, everyone.”

She added, without getting too specific: “We have to focus on the positive, and convince the international community that the two-state solution is the only way forward. This will give Israel the peace and security it deserves, and the Palestinians the state they aspire for. There’s no room to just let go.”

Despite the official absence of war that has now existed between Israel and Jordan for 16 years — and the fact that thousands of Israeli tourists now flock over the border every year to visit Petra and other archaeological sites once forbidden to them — few Jordanians have actually been to Israel, and even fewer have nice things to say about their Jewish neighbors.

According to a 2006 study conducted by the Pew Research Center, 100 percent of Jordanians surveyed expressed unfavorable opinions of Jews. That compared to 99 percent of Lebanese, 98 percent of Egyptians, 88 percent of Moroccans, 76 percent of Indonesians, 74 percent of Pakistanis and 60 percent of Turks.

Official Jordanian government documents routinely omit Israel from maps of the region, and even the Jordanian Embassy’s own website leaves the name Israel off its index of overseas missions. Rather, Jordan’s embassy in the Jewish state is listed under “Telaviv” — right between Switzerland and Tunisia (though Bouran appeared genuinely surprised when told of the omission and said she’d take a look at it).

In an irony not lost on environmentalists, perhaps the only project that has really brought Israel and Jordan together is a controversial — some say dangerous — scheme to bring water from the Red Sea 110 miles north to the Dead Sea, an incredibly salty, shrinking body of water shared by both countries.

Unfortunately, the inland sea, whose salinity hovers around 31 percent, is dropping by about three feet a year due to evaporation and the fact that its upstream sources, mainly the Jordan River, have been heavily dammed. Since 1960, the Dead Sea has fallen about 75 feet and lost one-third of its surface area.

The Red-Dead Canal, as it’s called, envisions sending nearly 2 billion cubic meters of water (about 500 billion gallons) north each year via a network of pipelines and tunnels, according to the Washington Post, with some of it desalinated en route and some used to reverse the Dead Sea’s declining water level.

An additional benefit: The ambitious $5 billion scheme would generate a huge amount of hydroelectricity, powering desalination plants with purified Red Sea water for drinking and agriculture.

Yet environmentalists warn that the Red-Dead Canal could destroy delicate coral life in the Gulf of Aqaba. They also worry that mixing the two types of water will trigger algae blooms or other unforeseen consequences.

Bouran seems undeterred. “I really hope this project will succeed. It’s not just a matter of giving life back to the Dead Sea, but also to the industries surrounding it.”

One of those industries is tourism, and Jordan has seen an explosion of hotels and spas along the Dead Sea as wealthy Gulf Arabs and Europeans flock to its healing waters, which have been curing sufferers of psoriasis and other ailments for centuries.

Bouran, who as tourism minister led efforts to make Jordan a leading international destination, said tourism is now the country’s top foreign-exchange earner.

In fact, Jordan’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities said 7 million people visited the country during the first 10 months of last year, up 18 percent from the same period in 2009. Arab countries account for 1.7 million of last year’s total, with France, Great Britain, Italy, Germany and Spain also contributing heavily to overall tourist arrivals.

Even the threat of terrorism hasn’t dissuaded tourists from coming, noted Bouran, who remembers all too well the day in 2005 when al-Qaeda suicide bombers attacked three hotels in Amman, killing 60 people and injuring another 115.

“The international solidarity was amazing,” she recalled. “One day after the bombing, a huge cruise ship was supposed to dock in Aqaba. The captain assembled everybody — all 2,000 passengers — and told them about the bombings, and that they could change the program and continue to the next port. Instead, the passengers voted unanimously to tour Jordan.”

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