Kamel Mahadin visited Baltimore 30 years ago as a graduate student studying landscape architecture at Louisiana State University. He returned Wednesday as the head of an ambitious, multibillion-dollar effort to build out Jordan's lone waterfront city into a tourist hub and expanded port.
"Thirty years ago, when I visited … this was a slum area," said Mahadin, chief commissioner of the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority. "Why Baltimore? It's a waterfront development. … We want to see success story."
Mahadin and his 10-person delegation are spending five days in the United States to raise the profile of Aqaba, a city of 130,000 perhaps most famous as the site of the 1917 defeat of Turkish forces dramatized in "Lawrence of Arabia."
Pictures from that time show a small stone village set behind a strip of pebbly beach and palm trees, with a backdrop of mountains. But Aqaba, Jordan's toehold on the Red Sea, has grown rapidly in the past decade. Now the county's leaders, including King Abdullah II and Parliament, want to make Aqaba a livable city and tourist destination, while they also expand the port.
The visit by some of the city's private and public sector leaders, which ends Friday, includes meetings with potential investors in New York and officials in Washington — and Wednesday's stop in Baltimore, where the delegation met with members of the Baltimore Development Corp., visited the port of Baltimore and stopped by the National Aquarium.
The redevelopment of the Inner Harbor in the late 1970s, which catalyzed other growth downtown, raised Baltimore's profile in planning circles around the world. The BDC hosts a handful of similar delegations each year, with groups from India, China and Brazil, for example, coming through in the past year or so, said Todd Dolbin, the corporation's senior director of economic development.
"Baltimore used to be an industrial port city with heavy commodities coming in and out of its harbor, and now it has managed to transform itself into a business and leisure hub as well," said Bashar Abu Rumman, vice president of the Aqaba Development Corp. "To us, this resembles the master plan that has been put in place in Aqaba since the inauguration of the special economic zone."
The zone has added more than 40,000 jobs in the past decade and more are coming, Mahadin said. For example, a planned $18 billion oil pipeline from Iraq will end in Aqaba, and the container port is being relocated and expanded.
"The way we see it as private sector is that the potential has been barely scratched," said Emad Kilani, CEO of Al Maabar Jordan, a development firm, based in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, that is planning a $10 billion mixed-use downtown development in Aqaba with more than 30,000 residential units and eight hotels.
The growth is driven by Jordan's relative stability since it signed a 1994 peace treaty with Israel, whose border lies less than four miles from Aqaba. As tourism picked up, Jordan invested in roads and other infrastructure, and outside investors grew more confident.
In 2001, the country established the city as a special economic zone to spur development. The zone offers incentives to business, such as a flat 5 percent income tax and property tax exemptions.
The city also is close to Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
"We look at Aqaba as a safe haven in a turmoiled region," Kilani said.
The delegation asked Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake about the waterfront's importance as a public space, said spokeswoman Caron Brace.
"What makes Baltimore work is moving the harbor south, like what we are doing now … giving access to public spaces for people to use and enjoy," Mahadin said.
He also showed interest in the city's Circulator bus and efforts to start a bike share program, Brace said.
Dolbin said Baltimore might be able to learn from the example of the special economic zone, and the trip could lead to closer business ties. The port of Baltimore exchanged about $78 million in goods, mostly exports, with Jordan last year.
"This is a learning experience — not just for them," Dolbin said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun