Marcopolis presents the Jordan Report focused on the investments, doing business, economy and other topics featuring interviews with key executives and government officials. The sectors under review are industry, telecom, banking sector, ICT, investments and more.
Interview with Sahl Dudin, Managing Director of Ayla Oasis Development Company
Give us your personal evaluation of the touristic developments in Jordan and, secondly, in Aqaba.
Tourism is what they call “Jordan’s oil”. It is basically the major sources of income to the Kingdom and the employer of tens of thousands of people. Jordan boasts many touristic sites like Petra, Jerash, Wadi Rum, Dead Sea and Aqaba. We believe that tourism is Jordan’s future in terms of revenue and prosperity.
Aqaba was turned into a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) under His Majesty’s vision ten years ago. Under that vision, 50% of the commercial aspects within that zone are supposed to be for tourism, thereby making tourism a major aspect of it. Of course there are complementary businesses evolving around tourism as well and there are services, logistics, entertainment etc. This is all ongoing and developing steadily.
Obviously not only tourism but the whole economy is impacted by what is happening in the surrounding region. How is the regional situation impacting Ayla Oasis Development Company?
We remain optimistic and resilient. I think the word resilient here is very important. Jordan has seen many adversities, not in Jordan but in neighbouring countries. We have been living in a very hot zone all around us and every time that we feel things are moving in the right direction, it sparks up again. However Jordan does remain resilient and fuelled by its wise leadership and its security. Jordan is a very secure country for tourism and for foreign direct investment. Our stability and security is very important for our resiliency. We keep driving the tourism product, trying to make it complete and trying to complement the missing parts, so that hopefully Jordan becomes a full destination for tourism and for long stays rather than short stays.
The company is now involved in one of the most ambitious mixed use projects in Jordan: Ayla. Tell us about Ayla. What are the particularities and the project’s objectives?
Ayla is very unique; it is basically realising the vision of Aqaba in a way. The vision of Aqaba was to have 50% of its activities in tourism and in other related developments. So Ayla was given land on the border which was undeveloped to turn into a mixed use development and attraction. Within Ayla we actually tackled some of the main challenges of Aqaba. The main challenges of Aqaba are the limited shoreline, as it is only 27km. Our mandate was to increase Aqaba’s shoreline by building inland lagoons within the land and then building around these lagoons waterfront properties, hotels to increase the tourism product, some residential units and some commercial entertainment units as well as a golf course because golf courses are tourism enablers for Aqaba and for Jordan as a whole. Slowly but steadily we ploughed on and we were able to increase Aqaba’s shoreline by 17km which is almost 52% of the existing shoreline and so it is quite a feat. We did that by building a series of lakes and lagoons with a total area of around 75 hectares and around these lagoons we shall be building a series of hotels with around 1,500 hotel rooms and around 3,000 residential properties, some of which will be waterfront, others are facing the city or Jordan’s first 18 hole, signature golf course designed by Greg Norman who actually labelled our golf course as one of the top 3 golf courses in the world when it comes to sustainability—if not the first.
Again, sustainability is a key word here. We have utilised renewable energy for the desalination of the brackish water for the golf course’s irrigation and for pumping the water for our lagoons. As a testament for the environmental soundness of these lagoons, we now have very healthy marine life, with fish and corals and other marine life propagating which makes us very proud.
Jordan does remain resilient and fuelled by its wise leadership and its security. It is a very secure country for tourism and for foreign direct investment.
The first phase of the project will include the Marina Village which is the hub of the project and the commercial centre. It includes two anchor hotels: a Hyatt Regency Hotel—a 5 star hotel that has around 300 rooms—and a boutique hotel of 70 rooms with a special theme. It will also include the commercial, retail and entertainment components which are open to the public and which will hopefully complement the tourism product in Aqaba and hopefully prolong the guest stays whenever they visit us.
The construction works began in 2008. What stage are you at now and what is the overall time frame?
Yes, in 2008; and with the start of the global economic downturn we decided to concentrate on construction and lay low a little bit on marketing because it was not the right time to do marketing for real estate projects. With the total area of 430 hectares, it is a big feat to complete the entire infrastructure. Building these massive lakes, the infrastructure and services actually consumed around 4 years. So in 2012 we flooded our lagoons and that was a major accomplishment. We immediately started building the first phase of operations, which includes the Marina Village, the two hotels, and the residential area. We have two residential components that are unique in Aqaba because they are the only waterfront properties whereby you can moor your own yacht or boat right in front of your apartment. We were lucky to actually find some brackish water within the project while doing the construction, so we pushed forward the golf course to phase one rather than doing it in the last phase because it requires large amounts of water. The golf course covers 25% of the land, the lagoons cover another 25% of the land and so we consider the development to be green and low density. By the end of 2017 we will finish the first phase of the project and moving forward we have two more phases, each of four years, so in 2025 hopefully the project will see completion. We hope that the political situation around us stabilises a little bit so that it will accelerate the developments and it will accelerate the demand but we remain committed to Jordan and to Aqaba with Ayla. In fact Ayla is testament to that.
You are personally engaged with various community activities and the company was one of the main sponsors of the marathon which was held earlier this month. Could you talk more about your CSR activities?
Ayla is part of Aqaba and we are part of the community. Early on, even during the early construction stages we initiated partnerships with the community through various programs. We adopted a school here whereby we help improve the level of the students and their achievements by supporting their education. We also support the University of Jordan and the Aqaba branch whereby we donated their foreign languages lab so that the graduates can speak different languages and can cater to the tourism industry that is coming. Ayla is a big part of that. We also donated a 5 star fully fledged training kitchen to the Albalqa Applied University which is also here in Aqaba and which graduates students in the culinary business so that they can come and work in hotels.
We are investing in people, getting them ready to join the workforce in Ayla. Ayla will be generating around 4,000 direct jobs once it is completed and we hope that the majority of these employees are actually from Jordan, from the south and from Aqaba. That is why we are investing in people. Still we also support some community activities like the marathon that you mentioned. The marathon is a really good way to engage the community. Year after year we are seeing the number of people participating grow. We started with 500 people and this year we had 2,500. We hope that it will reach 5,000 or 10,000 in the years to come. We remain committed to this kind of event and to others. We were also sponsors for the Dead 2 Red Cycling Race for the second year. We are also involved in other community activities and initiatives. We support the neighbourhood committees that are surrounding Ayla so that we empower them and give them skills by for example working with the students during the summer so that they remain engaged. We feel strongly about the community and we are fully committed to it.
We are also committed to empowering women in the community through various programs to get them ready for the workplace through supporting some of their initiatives whether it is in handicrafts, cooking, languages or certain leadership aspects.
Is there anything else you would like to address with regards to the overall investment climate in Jordan?
I believe visiting Aqaba is a must to see the opportunities that are there, to see the amount of projects that are being developed on the ground and the investments that are there. These investments should give some confidence to foreign investors that the future is bright for Aqaba and Jordan. We are committed and we are always optimistic and hopeful that the situation will eventually improve and gets better, by that time we shall be ready to receive the guests and investors who we invite to come to Jordan and Aqaba.