By Iqbal Tamimi
Voices of criticism were raised in the Jordanian political and national circles, demanding an explanation for privatizing the only sea port in Jordan.
The Jordanian cyber sphere reflected calls by citizens demanding an explanation from the government regarding its decision to sell 3200 acres of Aqaba port to Almaabar, an Emirati owned company, at the ridiculous price of 500 million Jordanian Dinars (£437 million), even though the market value of the land is more than 4 billion JD (£3.5 billion).
At a strategic location between the continents of Asia, Europe, and Africa, the Port of Aqaba plays a vital role in Jordan’s economy. According to World Port Source, it is the country’s only seaport, handling 78% of Jordan’s exports and 65% of its imports.
Popular protests in Jordan reached their peak last Friday, under the slogan "The Friday of recovering the port of Aqaba," where Jordanians called for the nationalization of the port, reclaiming the container’s port to the assets of the state, demanding an investigation and opening all other similar files of corruption executed under claims of privatization.
The Parliamentary Commission Inquiry visited Aqaba lately and raised important questions regarding the feasibility of the privatization process and its consequences, such as the costs of relocating the railway lines which transfer the phosphates to the southern region, estimated to cost over two billion Jordanian Dinars. In addition to other new costs the Jordanian government will be forced to pay in fees to the Emirate Company of ‘Almaabar’ as soon as the port is handed over to the UAE investors in 2013, in return of using some services.
Among the Jordanians unanswered questions; is the government going to provide over 500 megawatts of the electricity needed for the UAE company, while the cost of delivering one megawatt is one million dollars, and whether the Jordanian treasury is going to provide the UAE company, ‘Almaabar,’ with the needed $ 500 million worth of electricity free of charge, when the cost for creating the infrastructure has already been paid from the tax payers money.
Some Jordanian officials justified privatizing the port by claiming it will provide thousands of jobs to the unemployed, since the investments hoped for are estimated to reach 10 billion JD claimed to transform Aqaba city to an international tourism magnet. Unfortunately, those same claims were used in 2003 to justify creating the Aqaba Free Zone, and the 1994 decision to open the Wadi Araba Crossing, connecting the Israeli resort of Eilat with the Jordanian city of Aqaba. Both of which failed to meet the official’s promises and local people’s expectations regarding improving their local businesses, income, living standards, boosting employment rates or promises regarding improving the economy.
Other experts believe that the privatization and selling the port’s facilities is a bad strategy that will lead to a catastrophic economic outcome, especially considering the hidden financial costs that will be incurred by the Treasury, including the costs of relocating the remaining part of the port to the southern region, which is estimated to cost more than $300 million, in addition to other complications related to area sovereignty, services and marine Guidance duties assigned to a private company, not to mention the loss of state beaches and the containers’ port which generates millions of dollars in revenues.
The national opposition is believed to be an important factor that will determine the outcome regarding nationalizing the remaining state institutions expected to be privatized under different claims of rescuing the economy.
Almaabar, UAE Company, has already been working on the first stage of building Marsa Zayed, a 3.2 million sqm project on the Aqaba coast, estimated to be complete by 2014. It is claimed to be the biggest real estate and tourism project to take place in the history of Jordan. It will include high-rise residential towers, retail, recreational, entertainment, business and financial districts and several branded hotels, and marinas, which are claimed to transform Aqaba into a premier yachting destination, in addition to a state-of-the-art cruise ship terminal.
The privatization of Aqaba port has started almost a decade ago. The champions of the claimed economic reform were three men; Imad Fakhoury, Nader alDahabi, and Ali Abu Al-Ragheb, all of whom, Jordanians are demanding investigating and trying them for corruption.
Fakhoury, A Harvard alumnus engineer who appeared out of the blue as a chairman of the Aqaba Development Corporation, the central development arm of the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority, charged with implementing the 2001–20 master plans for Aqaba region, has pushed during the mid-2003 for a public-private partnership to run the port, arguing that this would be “strategically very important to Jordan, its economy, and its in-transit trade.”
Jordanian News Agency, Rum, has published an article by Dr. Hossam Abdallat entitled ‘Who can open Imad Fakhoury’s files ...?’ in which he questions the fast steps of Fakhoury’s progression on the career ladder. Fakhoury who had nothing to do with diplomacy, was appointed after graduation from USA at the Embassy of Jordan in Israel, then he was chosen to become the Commissioner of the Aqaba Special Economic Zone and progressed very fast, until he became the Director of the Office of the King of Jordan, and in charge of the country’s economy, a post too big for his age and experience.
Dr. Abdallat claims the first chapter of Fakhoury’s corruption files which must be investigated, goes back to when he was the Commissioner of the Aqaba Special Economic Zone, during which he leased a (22,680 square meters) of Aqaba shores, which was part of the plot number (707) at the Yemenia costal area, marked as panel (9) of Aqaba shores, to a company investing in tourism called Branis, through its representative and Chairman of the Board of Directors, Bashar Eid Zawaida, for a period of (25) years at a rent value of 10 Jordanian dinars almost(£9) a year, which does not buy a cup of coffee in a decent resort. The Jordanian online news website published a scanned copy of the contract in question.
Aqaba MP, Ahmed Hararah, has criticized the lease, and according to Jordanian media he considered this lease a form of corruption, since in reality, the lease of such land worth millions. Dr Abdallat accused the MP of not fulfilling his national duties by not mentioning the name of Imad Fakhoury explicitly as the godfather of this deal. Dr Abdallat claims that MP Hararah might have been reluctant to shame Mr Fakhoury openly because of Fakhoury’s connections as the Director for the Office of the King. Dr Abdallat called upon the Aqaba MP to practice his legal powers and demand an interrogation of Fakhoury and to interrogate members of his family about some encroachments they were involved in while he was working as a Commissioner at the Investment authority of Aqaba Special Economic Zone.
The second champion of the privatization plan is Nader al-Dahabi, who used to be the chief commissioner of the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority from 2004–07, who supported Fakhory’s plan, and now accused of corruption.
On 21 March 2012, the Jordanian ‘Jfra News’ website published an article and a scanned copy showing that Nader al-Dahabi has made a transfer of over one million Jordanian Dinars to a non-existing media company. The Jfra News claims his secretary, Aida, has executed the transfer herself. The (internal electronic memorandum) document scanned and published, shows that it was issued by Omar Rousan, and dated on 31 August 2008, and was addressed to the Director of the Finances of the Aqaba Authority, demanding of him to pay the claim for 1,036,560 Jordanian Dinars (almost one million sterling pounds), in return of a claimed media promotional campaign’s costs, carrying the slogan (Let’s sow the gold on the sand).
The electronic memorandum in question was received by the Director of Financing himself, who issued the payment order. Jfra News claims this is only one example of many monthly payments orders issued by him and paid by the Aqaba Authority Directorate to this claimed monopolizing company, that according to the records of the Ministry of Industry and Trade of Jordan, it does not exist.
Some personalities close to Aida, the secretary of the former Director Nader al-Dahabi, said that this company is owned by his son, who signed a monopolizing agreement that led to the collapse of local advertising and calligraphy businesses in Aqaba since it prevented them from exercising their legitimate right to sell billboards to the merchants of Aqaba.
Jfra News claims, there were over 30 million pounds worth of payments issued, claimed as expenses for promotional campaigns on television channels that no one has ever heard of, such as a claimed television satellite called ‘Fashion’. It has been revealed that the person who executed those agreements with the son of al-Dahabi was the ex-Director of al-Dahabi’s Office.
The third partner who pushed for the privatization was Ali Abu Al-Ragheb, twice minister of trade and industry (1991–93 and 1995) and prime minister of Jordan (2000-2003), who oversaw a series of laws, among them the Privatization Law 25/2000, which allowed port ownership to be transferred to a neutral party (the Aqaba Development Corporation).
Abu Al-Ragheb was accused of corruption as well. Former TV journalist Toujan al-Faisal, a human rights activist, who was Jordan's first female Member of Parliament, published an open letter addressed to King Abullah II on the website of the Houston-based newspaper Arab Times, accusing Prime Minister Abu Al-Ragheb of corruption. She claimed that the doubling of the cost of government-mandated automobile insurance implemented was intended to benefit the major insurance companies in Jordan, several of which were owned or partly owned by the Prime Minister himself. Ten days later she was arrested. she was convicted by the State Security Court on charges of "tarnishing the Jordanian state", defamation of the judiciary, "uttering words" before another deemed to be "detrimental to his religious feeling", "publishing and broadcasting false information abroad which could be detrimental to the reputation of the state", and inciting "disturbances and killings." She was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment, the maximum sentence allowed on such charges.