Tourism to the Middle East waxes and wanes dramatically based on what’s in the headlines. Windows of peace (or the absence of war), safety and quiet can be small, narrow and change in a moment’s notice. Fortunately, my wife and I traveled to Jordan and Israel at a relatively peaceful time.
The flight from Dubai (Sharjah), UAE to Amman, Jordan took three hours and 10 minutes, making me realize just how huge a land mass Saudi Arabia is, three times larger than Turkey and nearly half the size of the continental United States, but with a population less than the state of California (28 million for Saudi; 30 million for California).
“You are now entering the Kingdom of Jordan,” the airline attended announced as the Air Arabia plane landed at the gleaming, super-modern Queen Alia International Airport, designed by iconic British architect Norman Foster in the form of Bedouin tents, and constructed for $750 million. It opened in March 2013. So my first impression of Jordan was of a wealthy country.
That might eventually be true, if Jordan is better able to promote its tourist attractions — Roman ruins, Biblical sites, Dead Sea resorts, and the extraordinary ancient city of Petra — as well as exploit its natural resources, such as shale oil deposits, and if the regional refugee crisis would end, and if peace could break out in the region. But as our Jordanian B&B host quickly explained when he picked us up at the airport, few things are ever simple for Jordan.
While Jordan itself is generally safe, friendly to Westerners and stable, it is severely buffeted by conflict and bad behavior among its neighbors, he said.
More than three million refugees currently reside here — a million Palestinians, a million Iraqis, a million Syrians, and thousands of Libyans. Huge refugee camps dot Jordan’s borders. It is extremely dependent on billions of foreign aid to refugees. The number of tourists that come to Jordan fluctuates wildly by millions based on news of regional conflicts, anywhere from eight million to 11 million tourists per year. Cancellations can occur frequently on news of an Israeli war in Gaza, terrorist attacks, instability in Egypt, civil wars in Syria and Iraq, conflict spreading to Lebanon. In 2011, Jordan lost at least a billion dollars in tourism due to instability across the region. This sense of not knowing how to predict the flow of tourists next week, next month or next quarter might explain the sense of aggressiveness if not desperation among taxi drivers and street vendors, which we noticed the next day after our arrival while touring the Roman ruins of Jerash and the following days in the ancient city of Petra.
Fortunately for the Jordanians, the outlook for tourism in 2014 is better than 2013 and earlier years. But Jordan has to struggle to stay on track.
Our guide identified himself as “a true Jordanian, unlike all the other people here.” He said he was of Bedouin descent and his family had lived in the region forever. His grandfather was the head of a large Hashemite tribe and worked closely with King Faisal to overthrow the Ottoman Turks in the Arab Revolt of 1916-18. Yet he was British educated and was of a Western orientation. As an aviation engineer before his retirement, he had worked closely with King Hussein, who was also a pilot. The airport was named for Hussein’s third wife, Alia. They married in 1972, but she was killed in a plane crash in 1977, which our guide said was “highly suspicious” since he knew the pilot as a very thorough man.
King Hussein, widely respected in the West, married an American as his fourth wife in 1978. Lisa Halaby was a graduate of Princeton University. She became Queen Noor of Jordan, and wrote a bestselling autobiography, Leap of Faith: Memoirs of an Unexpected Life. King Hussein died in 1999 of cancer. Hussein’s son Abdullah II succeeded to the throne, and like his father, straddles two worlds — the West as well as the Middle East. Photos displayed at government agencies throughout the kingdom announce that Abdullah’s son, Prince Hussein, will succeed him, assuming the royal family can continue to weather the region’s political storms.
- Death of a King: Cautious Hussein Straddled Two Worlds, by Judith Miller in the NYT, 1999.
- Jordan’s dependence on billions of foreign aid to refugees
- The Modern King in the Arab Spring (The Atlantic, 2013)
Books About Jordan
- Lion of Jordan: The Life of King Hussein in War and Peace by Avi Slaim: “Peace-broker, statesman, charismatic ruler and master of realpolitik, Hussein of Jordan was one of the most important figures in the turbulent history of the Middle East.”
- Leap of Faith. Memoirs of an Unexpected Life, by Queen Noor (Lisa Halaby, from a distinguished Arab-American family).