As the Jordanian capital of Amman morphed from serenity into clatter with unrest over the past year, the country’s economy minister has one simple message: Whatever the immediate problems, his nation is winning the war on the Dead Sea.
“We need to reduce, if not eliminate, Dead Sea addiction. Jordanians have to know that the Dead Sea can be a very healthy, fresh and lovely place,” Hanan Ashrawi told The Associated Press in an interview at her office.
Waters rising 20 feet are killing fish and marine wildlife on a scale not seen since the 1970s, said the chairwoman of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s World Tourism Organization.
Qatar is not alone in its investment in a $1.5 billion Dead Sea resort under construction in Jordan’s Gulf province of Aqaba. Known as Dead Sea Living, it has 72 luxury hotels, a 1,600-room deluxe resort and 25 golf courses.
Work on the project began in 2010. Cost estimates had run up to $12 billion but the modern-day curse of salty water has slashed the budgets to about $1.3 billion so far.
Some of the finished infrastructure includes a 70-acre lake with an artificial coral reef, landscaped groves of palm trees and a biodiverse natural park.
Anachronistic in more ways than one, the project is part of a growing awareness of the Dead Sea’s crucial economic importance. Some say the upcoming Clean & Safe Dead Sea project will go a long way to recovering the Jordan River, from which Jordan’s water supply is drawn.
The convention center in Amman
The waters rise 20 feet inside Jordan, an area formerly rich in phosphates that provided the vital agricultural ingredient for industries in Israel, Europe and the U.S.
Today, 3 million Dead Sea waterbirds die each year, in a silent agony caught on tape by Tom Hanks in “Forrest Gump.”
Nearby, salty underground water drains into the Dead Sea and seeps into underground aquifers for consumption and irrigation, especially on fertile Jordan’s Arabian Desert.
Taken together, this is how the Dead Sea has lost two-thirds of its 4,000 square miles since the 1980s, a phenomenon environmentalists have dubbed a “diabolical phenomenon.”
“This one sea is the biggest champion of global warming in the world,” Ashrawi said.
The Jordanian government has been working for four years to establish a national Dead Sea Affairs Strategy that is set to be rolled out this year.
“A lot of people are saying ‘Let’s do nothing because it’s so familiar.’ But having waterless rivers, having salty seas and hot deserts is worrying,” Ashrawi said.
The private sector has stepped in, investing huge sums to turn Amman into a sparkling new urban enclave. Cashing in on the boom is the Middle East’s casino business, with high-end baccarat tables cropping up in the city’s royal palace and other hotel ballrooms.
Egyptian gazebos at the Dead Sea, where Cairo came to learn about the modern delights of the world’s oldest saltwater lake.
The Amman skyline now resembles the shopping centers of Hong Kong. Some call it “the capital of the underground city.”
Some of the global hotels that have added a splash of color to the Dead Sea landscape include Shangri-La’s new pool hotel, Hilti’s Al-Helwaniel, and the award-winning Kempinski, where international standards set the standard for Amman’s luxury hotels.
But Ashrawi, not new to the battle, refuses to waver in her dream for Amman to be the capital of the Dead Sea industry.
“We have a better-than-chances chance, a much greater chance than maybe in 75 years when it may disappear. And the countries of the Middle East will be reduced to being small islands of poverty,” she said.
“Jordanians will be talking about their country’s economy and we will be talking about the Dead Sea.”
Associated Press writer Stan Lehman in Amman contributed to this report.