Israel promised acess to Straits of Tiran after Saudi-Egypt deal, says defense chief

Israel was guaranteed in writing free passage through the Straits of Tiran after Saudi Arabia’s planned takeover of two strategic Red Sea islands, Israel’s defense minister told reporters Tuesday.

Egypt agreed to hand over the islands, which it has controlled for more than 60 years, as part of a deal to build a bridge over the sea between the two countries that was announced during a weekend visit by King Salman of Saudi Arabia.

The deal had raised questions about Israel’s continued access to the passage, the revocation of which was a casus belli of the 1976 Six-Day War between Israel and its neighbors. But Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said Israel was consulted early in talks over the deal and gave its consent.

“An appeal was made to us – and it needed our agreement, the Americans who were involved in the peace agreement and of the MFO,” Yaalon said, referring to the Multinational Force and Observers peacekeeping forces at the Israeli-Egyptian border. “We reached an agreement between the four parties – the Saudis, the Egyptians, Israel and the United States – to transfer the responsibility for the islands, on condition that the Saudis fill in the Egyptians’ shoes in the military appendix of the peace agreement.”

In the document given to Israel, Saudi Arabia, which does not have formal relations with Israel, pledges to abide by the principles that have governed Israeli-Egyptian relations since their 1979 peace treaty, Haaretz reported. According to the treaty, the Straits of Tiran and the entire Gulf of Aqaba are international waterways open to free passage by Israel and overseen by the international observers.

The islands being relinquished to Saudi Arabia, Tiran and Sanafir, stand sentry at the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba. The Israeli city of Eilat and the Jordanian city of Aqaba are located at the northern tip of the gulf. The Saudi-Egyptian deal has faced public criticism in Egypt as a blow to national pride.

World’s largest ‘Slip n’ Slide’ to be built in Jordan

This article first appeared on The Media Line.

The desert kingdom of Jordan might seem like an unlikely location for the world’s largest water slide. Breaking the record for the longest “Slip n’ Slide”, the long sheet of thin plastic that becomes slippery when wet, is designed as a gesture of little Jordan’s ability to compete with the giants in the profitable world of tourism, organizers said.

An opening of the slide at the lowest point on earth, the Dead Sea, will showcase the many wonders that Jordan has to offer to foreign tourists, hopes Monaco Business Development, the company behind the project. From there the slide will travel around the country visiting the capital Amman and key tourist sites at Petra, Wadi Rum and Aqaba – no easy feat considering the slide weighs around 5 or 6 tons.

The development company would not reveal the exact length of their slide but confirmed their intention to beat the current record of 1,975 feet held by one in the United States.

“It’s symbolic that Jordan, in this region, can take on the world if you put your heart into it,” Mona Naffa, Monaco Business Development’s director, told The Media Line.

The one-piece, plastic slide was hand made in Jordan in order to support local jobs, Naffa said, adding that her company was committed to using out-of-the-box ideas “to showcase Jordan in the mainstream media.” The local company previously staged the largest floating human image, when a collection of hotel workers formed a giant peace symbol on the Dead Sea last year.

At the beginning, the slide will be open only to invited guests. After that, a fee will be charged but organizers hope to arrange subsidies for poorer local children, Naffa said. Conservation of water and the cultural sensitivities of Jordanians will also be taken into account at the events.

“We are a moderate country… (but) we are also realistic… we have a website with a strict dress code – no bathing suits,” Naffa said, suggesting that shorts and tee-shirts were a better option. Water will be saved through recycling, she added.

Jordan has few natural resources like gas or oil, and tourism is an essential part of its economy.

“It’s critical – 10% of the GDP for the country (is from tourism),” Matt Loveland, the co-founder and general director of Experience Jordan tours, told The Media Line. “(Tourism is) the highest employer of people in Jordan – the national economy depends on it.”

But tourism has been hard pressed by ongoing political and security concerns in the Middle East following the outbreak of violence in Iraq and Syria and to a lesser extent Egypt. According to statistics from the Jordanian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, the country received just over 5 million visitors in 2014, down from over 8 million in 2010 prior to the start of the Arab Spring.

Bookings have fallen by as much as 50%, Loveland said, even though there has been no violence in Jordan, and it is safe to visit. The Jordanian government and Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities are doing what they can to bring tourists back, Loveland said, but concluded that the misperception is hard to reverse.

“People hear about a suicide bomber in Baghdad and they think of Jordan and the Middle East… but its several hundred kilometers away in another country,” he explained.

Israel says it is addressing Jordan concerns on new airport near border

Israel is in talks to resolve Jordan's misgivings about potential safety risks posed by the construction of a new Israeli airport near their border, the Israeli transport minister said on Thursday.

Slated to open by the end of 2016, the airport at Timna, outside the Israeli resort of Eilat, will be some 10 km (6 miles) northwest of King Hussein International Airport serving Aqaba – the Jordanian port facing Eilat across the Red Sea gulf.

Worried that the proximity could spell dangerous disruptions to its air corridors, Amman said in June it had complained to the U.N. International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

“We are managing this,” Transport Minister Yisrael Katz said when asked about the dispute with Jordan, one of two Arab countries to have full relations with Israel.

“The Jordanians are displaying sensitivity on the matter,” Katz told Israel Radio.

“We are, in coordination with various agencies, handling contacts with them discreetly, and the fact is that construction is progressing and the airport will function.”

In a separate statement, Katz's ministry said the Timna airport, which will be named after Ilan Ramon, the Israeli astronaut killed along with six other crew members in the Columbia space shuttle disaster in 2003, “is being built in accordance with ICAO regulations and, as such, does not create safety risks for the airport at Aqaba”.

The Montreal-based ICAO did not immediately respond to a request from Reuters for comment.

The Timna airport will replace the small airstrip now serving Eilat, a major Israeli tourism draw. It has also been billed as a wartime alternative to Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion Airport, which was briefly shunned by most foreign carriers in July 2014 because of Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza.

Re-routing planes at short notice is a familiar peacetime process in civil aviation. Yet some experts question whether Israel can manage that seamlessly, given that Ben-Gurion's normal operating volume of up to 90,000 passengers a day is seven times greater than that anticipated for the Timna airport.

U.S. military aircraft, passenger plane have near-miss over Eilat

A U.S. military aircraft and an Israeli passenger plane nearly collided over Eilat.

A C-130 Hercules aircraft flying from Bahrain to Jordan and the Arkia plane came within two miles of each other, according to reports.

The military aircraft tried to land at the Eilat Airport believing it was the King Hussein International Airport in Aqaba. The Israeli control tower helped the U.S. plane make it to Jordan.

It was the second time in two weeks that there has been a near-miss over Eilat.

Will Jordan become the next Dubai?

There's more to the Red Sea city of Aqaba than pristine waters and breathtaking coral reefs. The liberalized duty-free area is seeking to become the gateway of commerce in the region, Jordanian officials say.

The Aqaba Economic Zone Authority (ASEZA), which runs the port city independent of the government, has signed several agreements worth a total of some $500 million to expand the port's handling capacity.

To be completed in 2015, the port project is expected to pave the way for turning Aqaba into a solid transit hub serving the local market, Iraq, Syria and other Levant ports, ASEZA officials told The Media Line.

Aqaba is surrounded by several ports in the Red Sea area including in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel, but officials are confident that the Jordanian port has the edge due to its direct borders with two major markets, Iraq and Syria.

The adjacent Israeli port city of Eilat is hardly considered a competitor for Aqaba, according to Jordanian businessmen.

“Eilat serves the local Israeli market. Iraqi or Syrian businessmen refuse to deal with Israel because of its occupation of Arab lands, therefore Aqaba is the natural choice,” said Mohammed Abu Jaber, who runs an Aqaba import-export business.

The port project will see the construction of 28 new terminals for fuel, phosphates, grains and other goods.

Ghassan A. Ghanem, CEO of the Aqaba Development Corporation (ADC), said the new port is strategic in ensuring the kingdom's food and energy supplies and will also serve regional markets.

“Jordan's stability boosted the confidence of investors in Aqaba, which aims to become a hub of imports and exports in the region,” Ghanem told The Media Line.

“We are talking about a new group of terminals that will be expanded or constructed including terminals for natural gas at a cost of $50 million and another for fuel gas at a cost of $20 million,” he added.

Jordan hopes the new gas terminal will solve its chronic fuel crisis that has been exacerbated by the turmoil in Egypt, the main provider of the kingdom's natural gas.

The government reported a $1.5 billion loss due to the frequent disruption of Egyptian gas supplies since former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak's regime was overthrown.

Qatar will be the main provider of gas in Aqaba as the Gulf state targets new markets including Syria and Turkey, Jordanian businessmen said.

Another key project is an agreement to build an $18 billion pipeline to export Iraqi oil from Basra through Aqaba.

Iraqi Business Council (IBC) President Majid Saadi said that pipeline represents a significant improvement in trade ties between Jordan and Iraq. The pipeline will enable Iraq to export 2.25 million barrels of oil daily, generating some $2-3 billion for Jordan annually. 

“Jordan has proven time and again it is a reliable partner for Iraq, in times of peace and turmoil,” he told The Media Line.

The volume of traffic in the port is up, with some 817,000 containers handled in 2012, serving Jordanian and Iraqi consumers. Over the past four years, the volume of traffic has nearly doubled, according to official figures.

“The pipeline with Iraq is recognition of the strategic value of Jordan's stability, Additionally the newly expanded port will also lead to a leap in trade volume between Jordan and Iraq and the rest of the region,”
Saadi concluded.

Aqaba was transformed into a special tax free economic zone by Jordan's King Abdullah in 2000, in a bid to turn the city into a commercial hub. It was granted administrative independence and all economic incentives, including passage of the tax-free zone law.

While the commercial projects continue undisrupted, other ventures aim to bring in more dollars by turning the city into a major tourist attraction.

A $10 billion megaproject, Marsa Zayed, is dubbed the biggest real estate and tourism project in Jordanian history and promises to turn the city into a veritable wonderland.

Funded by the United Arab Emirates government, it includes high-rise residential towers, retail, recreational, entertainment, business and financial districts and several branded hotels.

With billions of dollars invested, Jordanian officials are confident Aqaba is destined to become the new Dubai of the Middle East.