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Jordan, Israel wage business, not war
The Washington Times / March 29, 2000

By Larry Luxner

AQABA, Jordan -- From the docks along the Port of Aqaba, an observer can gaze out on four Middle Eastern nations simultaneously: Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Also in plain view at the port are Hebrew-marked shipping containers belonging to Zim Israel Navigation Co., an everyday sight that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago.

In fact, up until the 1994 peace treaty signed between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Jordan's King Hussein, Aqaba was forbidden to Israelis, while Israel and its Red Sea port of Eilat -- only a few hundred meters across the gulf from Aqaba -- was off-limits to Jordanians.

These days, ideas for bilateral cooperation between the two former enemies seem to be popping up all over, with many of these proposals centered on the Aqaba-Eilat area.

For the first time, Jordanian highway signs in English and Arabic now point the way to Eilat, which is linked to Aqaba via a new border crossing in the desert, about three miles north of the two port cities. Likewise, Aqaba's international airport -- in an effort to relieve pressure on Eilat's crowded airport -- now receives wide-body jets filled with sun-starved tourists on charter flights from Scandinavia. Amid heavy security, the tourists are then bussed over to beach resorts on the Israeli side.

And in mid-February, Jordanian aviation officials began allowing Israeli domestic airlines serving the Tel Aviv-Eilat route to fly over Jordan's less congested airspace. Royal Wings, the domestic subsidiary of national flag carrier Royal Jordanian, already offers charter flights from Amman to both Tel Aviv and Haifa.

"We really believe in regional cooperation," says Marwan Khoury, managing director of the Jordan Tourism Board (JTB). "Tourism is a vehicle for peace. It's in both parties' interest. This is business."

On any given day, droves of Hebrew-speaking Israeli tourists can be seen swarming through Petra -- a fabulous ancient Nabatean city that was off-limits to Israelis until the two countries signed a peace treaty in 1994. In at least one shop along the King's Highway heading south from Amman, Jewish menorahs and Hebrew-language guide books cram the shelves along with ceramic plates, woven carpets, bronze coffee pots and other typically Jordanian souvenirs.

Increasing numbers of Israelis are also hopping over the border to check out the Mövenpick Resort & Spa along Jordan's Dead Sea coast. In addition to 233 guest rooms in two-story village buildings of traditional stone and plaster construction, the $40 million complex also includes the Sanctuary Zara Spa -- billed as the largest luxury spa in the Middle East.

The Israelis are attracted by the relative peace and quiet, and by the fact that -- even at $500 for a week of treatments, not including the hotel room itself -- the Mövenpick is still cheaper than Israel's own Dead Sea resorts, whose lights are clearly visible at night.

"The spas on the Israeli side are very sophisticated for medical treatment, but not from the luxury point of view," says Diana Kassih, public relations manager at the Mövenpick. "Being at the lowest point on Earth, you get very relaxed here. The bromide in the atmosphere acts like a valium. Also, the Jordanian side is not very developed. It's still clean. This is one thing I hear from guests who have been on both sides."

Yet 75% of the 120,000 Israelis who visited Jordan last year were in fact Palestinian Arabs on family trips. Khoury says he wants to target Israeli Jewish tourists, who generally have more money to spend and are more likely to stay in hotels.

"The Israelis only know Petra. They don't know about anything else we have to offer," he said. "We need to do promotional work in their own language, Hebrew. We have an embassy in Israel, but we cannot rely on embassies. We're therefore considering appointing a public-relations rep in Tel Aviv, though that probably won't happen this year."

The two countries already engage in joint tourism promotion at U.S. travel fairs, though Khoury says JTB's budget of $6 million is only a fraction of what the Israelis spend annually on tourism promotion -- a number he estimates at $38 million.

While exact figures are hard to come by, Jordan exports roughly $20 million worth of goods to Israel annually; Israeli exports to Jordan amount to about the same.

In Aqaba -- whose economy was devastated in 1991 after the United Nations imposed economic sanctions against the port's chief customer, Iraq -- one tangible sign of cooperation between Israel and Jordan is the very presence of Zim Lines and its brown containers emblazoned with the Star of David logo.

Yousef Naji, assistant operations manager for the Zim agent in Aqaba, Petra Navigation International Trading Co. Ltd., says he's handling 50 to 100 containers a month for Zim, and that "day by day it's increasing." The lion's share of Zim's business in Aqaba, however, is the delivery of Japanese and Korean automobiles to Jordan directly from the Far East.

"After discharging several thousand autos in Eilat for the Israeli market," said Naji, "the same car carrier goes to Aqaba for four or five hours, where it unloads 200-300 cars for Jordan, then continues back to Asia."

In northern Jordan, several Israeli manufacturers have established joint-venture operations, assembling garments and electronics for a regional market. These plants take advantage of Jordan's low-cost labor in much the same way U.S. multinationals employ Mexicans in maquila factories south of the Rio Grande.

Yet while many Jordanians seem to welcome Israeli tourists, they bristle at the thought of Israelis buying land or investing directly in Jordan.

"I don't like the approach of Israeli companies coming here," says Amin Kawar, deputy general manager of Amin Kawar & Sons Co., one of Jordan's largest shipping companies. "They end up putting cheap labor in Jordan, enjoying the maximum benefit for the Israeli investor while giving minimum benefit for the Jordanian investor."

Kawar insists his objections are not based on anti-Jewish or anti-Israel sentiment.

"I was one of the first Jordanians to go to Israel after the peace treaty," says the businessman, who sits on the board of the Jordanian-American Business Association. "To me, it's a pure business thing. Many Israelis are too aggressive. Their attitude seems to be more take than give."

Kawar says that since the 1994 peace treaty, Israeli officials have hinted that they'd like to strike a deal with Jordan to exclusively use Aqaba for handling Far East trade with both countries, thereby preserving Eilat's coastline for tourism development. In return, Haifa would be used exclusively by both countries for U.S. and European traffic.

He said that while the idea might make sense for Israel, it wouldn't help Jordan much.

"Shipping lines are coming anyway," he said. "Aqaba has its own strategic advantages -- ease of handling, low trucking costs and good road access. Haifa has not taken away much business from Aqaba. If borders really open up here and the Middle East becomes like Europe, Haifa might die in importance and Aqaba would improve."

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