It is a Christmas with heavy snow in Tallinn when I apply for a consultancy job in Jordan as part of the European Union neighbourhood policy project. When I receive a positive response that I am expected in Amman, it is still winter in Estonia but spring in Arabia. An Arab spring! The revolutionary wave that started in Tunisia has engulfed a large part of the southern Mediterranean region. There are also reports of popular unrest from various parts of the Arabian Peninsula. The beginning of the triumph of democracy may be nice, but what does it mean for a European? Should I be afraid? I am making preparations for my journey while numerous Egyptian holiday trips are being cancelled in Estonia and Europe. A look at the map does not bring peace of mind. Jordan shares a border with Iraq in the east and we all know what’s going on there. The southern border is shared with Syria, where reports of protest are beginning to come in. To the west is the West Bank of the Jordan River, a synonym for political conflict today. Much to the chagrin of my family, I start off on my first trip in February 2011, just as the first reports of unrest in Amman are coming in. After my arrival, my worrying proves unnecessary. Although there are demonstrations against the king in the old town mosque after Friday’s prayer, they are not widespread. Also, the king has let out some steam by making changes in government and implementing reforms. 

Even though this is my first visit to the Arab world, I fuse smoothly into the life of Jordan’s capital city. I am assisted by my good German colleague and project manager Ralf, who has been working here since 2006. Another important person is our local driver and guide Firas. Firas is Palestinian by birth, but has lived in Amman since early childhood. He’s a Jordanian citizen but still feels like a guest here. He is an expert on everything that needs organising and has a solution for any problem a person like me might have.

My duty during the 50-day project is to spread knowledge of strategic environmental assessment in Jordan and help promote this line of work. I have specific business with the Ministry of the Environment, which was established as recently as the 2000s to tackle mounting environmental issues. As it is one of the smallest public structures with the least amount of employees, a number of other public agencies are involved in the actual organisation of environmental protection. I communicate with the State Resources Board, which among other things oversees the development of oil shale fields and related oil and power production. Knowledgeable Jordanians know that an Estonian comes from the country of Eesti Energia – the company that promises to turn the stones in their yellow desert into fuel and electricity. I also liaise with the Development Regions Committee and other public structures in order to understand and develop the involvement of social and environmental issues into the planning process.

The King’s subjects

Jordan has a population of over 6.5 million, including over 2 million in the capital city Amman. The city is expected to grow to 6 million by 2050. To illustrate this rapid growth, it should be said that in 1950 the entire country’s population was only 1.5 million. Such an increase is mainly due to refugees. The first waves of refugees were Palestinians, following a number of conflicts between Israel and Palestine. Their integration into Jordanian society has been a long and difficult process, which has found some semblance of a solution only in the last decades. Besides political manoeuvres, the current king’s marriage to a Palestinian in 1983 has played a role in Palestinian integration in Jordan. Palestinians are estimated to make up as much as half of the population. Their role in state administration has also increased, which is why radical tribe leaders have made malicious statements over the past year concerning excessive Palestinian influence in the kingdom’s affairs. However there has not been any major friction in this regard. The most recent large wave of immigration took place at the time of the Gulf War and the beginning of the Iraq War. Many wealthy Iraqis who fled from the war found a safe haven in Jordan. Amman has Iraqi restaurants where the Iraqi refugees regularly meet. Inhabitants of the capital city are reminded of the Iraqi war by a considerable rise in housing prices.

Jordan is a constitutional monarchy. According to Hashemite genealogy, the king’s family can be traced back to the prophet Muhammad. The current king is a 43rd generation descendant of Muhammad. Abdullah II came to power in 1999 after his father’s death.

King Abdullah II, who celebrates his 50th jubilee this year is fervently honoured by a large part of the population. This is not an exaggeration. He is also one of the most acclaimed heads of state in the Arab world. The king and the state of Jordan currently have an active intermediary role in Palestinian–Israeli talks. Pictures of the royal family in its classic trinity – the kings Hussein and Abdullah II and the throne prince Hussein – can be seen everywhere and in all kinds of places. Everyone has something appreciative to say when speaking about the king.

Jordan’s capital Amman is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited ciities. Traces of advanced culture found by archaeologists date back to the 11th century BCE. The picture shows a Roman-era amphitheatre from a time when the city was known as Philadelphia. Photo: Private collection

As usual, monarchs are their people’s best representatives in many fields. Hailing from a rally nation Estonians should know that King Abdullah is the rally champion of Jordan. The annual Jordan Rally, which in 2011 was also a World Championship competition, is held under the king’s watchful eye. However he had to abandon his hobby of parachute jumping when he became king...

Jordanians are peaceful and fairly composed people. The aggressive bargaining so characteristic of some eastern countries practically doesn’t exist here. In the market and shops you can choose your goods in peace unless you ask for guidance. On the other hand, you cannot easily barter about the price. Goods are offered in a teasing, rather than intrusive manner. Many a little souvenir shop bears the humorous name “Why Not Shop’” and the necklace seller, who has just heard a polite but resolute “No thank you” from a tourist, shouts jokingly back “Say yes!”

Jordan’s currency, the dinar, is almost equal to the euro. However, the euro crisis has wavered the exchange rate to the dinar. While a year ago on my first trips to Jordan I was able to buy nearly 1.1 dinars for a euro, then at the beginning of this year a dinar is worth 1.1 euros. The price level is comparable to that of Estonia.

Endless desert... and plastic bags

Nature has not blessed Jordan with too many resources above or below ground. Crop cultivation is possible only in the northern part of the country, in the Jordan River valley, and by the Red Sea in the south.

You might think that you can literally strike oil anywhere on the Arabian Peninsula, but this is not the case in Jordan. Oil, gas, and other fuels are imported. The suppliers are mainly the related tribes or other countries in the region. Fuel and heating are relatively expensive here. To meet the rapidly growing energy demand, an oil shale project was launched, for which some of the resources were divided between many possible energy producers. Enefit, i.e. Eesti Energia, has made the most progress toward the actual exploitation of oil shale. Proponents of nuclear energy are fairly active in Jordan now, which is why the opponents are anxious as well. The focus is also on alternative energy, which seems to have lots of room for development. For example, only an estimated 16% of houses in Amman have their hot water heated by solar energy. In Israel, where such a system is mandatory for every house, the share of solar energy users already exceeds 90%.

A very large part of Jordan is covered with arid desert. In summer, the country can be shrouded in dust brought by strong winds from the desert areas of the Arabian Peninsula and the Sahara. It’s practical to keep your windows and doors shut at this time, or else the light yellow substance will cover your furniture and everything else indoors in a matter of hours.

For a Nordic person, who spends a large part of the year keeping vegetation at bay (mowing grass, cutting scrubs), the Jordanian desert looks like a Martian landscape. If it wasn’t for one thing – plastic bags. It is highly likely that geologists in the distant future will call our age the Plastic Bag Age. Organised waste management is only in the formative stage and weakly coordinated in Jordan. The first law on waste is only reaching parliament. Actual waste management is based on waste collectors and handlers that copy certain popular world models with only weak coordination by the state or local government. Plastic bags are widely used. In shops, almost every unit is happily packed in a separate plastic bag. A large part of the packaging ends up in the desert. Each thorny bush growing in the desert is a trap for at least one, but more likely many plastic bags. I am not exaggerating when I say that there was not a single metre of land free of plastic bags along the 365 km of desert road from the Red Sea to the capital city.

Jordan also has one of the world’s poorest countries in terms of fresh water resources. Annual precipitation is 111 mm. This is nearly five to eight times less than in Estonia. Precipitation is expected to decline further, due to climate change.

Throughout its history, Amman has been supplied by groundwater or water collected from wadis. Most of the wadis are now under buildings and the groundwater level drops by nearly a metre a year due to extensive use. To meet the growing demand, a water pipe nearly 325 km long and about 2 m in diameter has been built through Jordan to deliver water from the south-eastern part of the country to the capital. The water pipe was completed as recently as 2011, but can meet only a quarter of the demand. Plans are in the works proposing to pump desalinated Red Sea water. However the shortage of water is not obvious from people’s behaviour in Amman. Washing and polishing cars is almost a national sport. The front terraces of houses are also washed and dampened with care every morning.

A sad example of decreasing water resources is the Dead Sea. Its level drops by nearly a metre every year. This lake, which does not have an outlet, is expected to dry up in the next 50 years. A tourist can witness the drop of the water levels by the coastal structures, which are now several metres above the sea.


Summer is tourist season in Jordan. People come from the Gulf countries to seek shelter from the heat. Extra-large off-road vehicles then become a common sight on the streets of Amman. Saudi families parade the shops and restaurants, led by the white-cloaked head of the family, followed by a bunch of noisy children and finally the mother of the family, dressed in black. For decades, Jordan used to be a stop on their summer journey via Syria to Lebanon. The problematic situation in Syria decreased this transit tourism considerably in 2001, while the length people’s stay in Jordan has increased. 

Medical tourism is another interesting form of tourism. Already in Gaddaffi’s day, Jordan had an agreement providing health care services to Libyans and the new government has extended this agreement. In January and February 2012, hotels in Amman are full of Libyans and their family members receiving medical care in an Amman hospital.

For European tourists, there are certainly more convenient destinations with a more developed infrastructure, but a visitor to Jordan has all the more opportunity to experience a place that has not been ruined by the tourist industry. Even when visiting the “must-sees”, I have the feeling that Europe hasn’t quite discovered Jordan yet. Here are some tips:

Dead Sea and Madaba

If you ever visit Jordan, you should take a trip to the Dead Sea. It’s only 40 km from Amman, but because of the mountains, the drive takes nearly an hour. A swim in the Dead Sea is something you’ll remember for the rest of your life. It looks like regular water, but feels like an oily emulsion. You can float like a cork on the dense salty liquid and this is a source of excitement for everyone. Swimming is completely impossible; what’s more, when you try to walk in up to your chest, your feet are simply lifted from the sea bottom. If you get the extremely salty water in your eyes, you can imagine what the devil in the old Estonian fairy tale must have felt when the clever peasant poured boiling lead into his eye...

The Dead Sea’s water level is falling primarily due to the heavy use of the water in the River Jordan, which feeds the lake. In the 1930s, 1.3 billion m3 of water a year flowed into the Dead Sea from the Jordan, but the figure has now dropped to less than 400 million m3. Only 2% of the Jordan’s water makes it to the Dead Sea. A total of 1.05 billion m3 of water evaporates from the surface of the Dead Sea each year, as a result of which the water level falls 1 metre a year. It is predicted that the lake will completely dry up in 50 years. For now, however, the ultrasaline body of water offers tourists from near and far a chance to enjoy floating carefree as a child. Photo: Private collection

Jordan plans to further develop Dead Sea tourism. In 2001 the development plan for the Dead Sea region won an international architectural award in the planned areas category. But why develop tourism if the sea is disappearing? To compensate the loss of water due to evaporation, a plan is in the works to direct additional water to the Dead Sea from the Red Sea or via Israel from the Mediterranean Sea. The idea has gotten no further than the planning stage since the water pipe’s environmental impacts have not yet been studied.

On the way from Amman to the Dead Sea you can visit Madaba and Mount Nebo. Madaba is the country’s largest Christian centre and its main attraction is a 19th century Greco-Roman church, which has been built in the place of a much older church. Nebo is the place where Jehovah showed Moses the Promised Land. As you stand in the same spot today and look over the sea toward Jerusalem, Jericho and other biblical cities, you can only imagine the green hillsides that once covered the entire Dead Sea Valley up to Jerusalem.


One of Jordan’s main sights, visited by about a million tourists in 2011 is the town of Petra, cut into sandstone rocks thousands of years ago. It has been recognised as one of the so-called seven modern wonders of the world. While foreign tour operators used to cut a direct profit from Petra, the state of Jordan has now decided to increase its share of the revenue by increasing the entry fee ten times. During our visit it was 50 dinars per person. Petra’s heyday was during the Nabatean and Roman Empire times, while a few Bedouin tribes still live there. You should plan a whole day to visit the rock city and the canyon that takes you there.

The best-known view of the ancient cliffside city of Petra ‒ Al Khazneh or the “treasury”. 
Photo: Private collection

Wadi Rum

For those interested in wilderness, Jordan offers Wadi Rum, which is about 60 km north of Aqaba. The Valley of the Moon with its hot red sand dunes and majestic granite cliffs is Jordan’s largest wadi. Wadi Rum has been home to Bedouins since prehistoric times, but became more widely known in the west thanks to Lawrence of Arabia, i.e. the 1962 British film made in the Wadi Rum and starring Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Omar Sharif and others. Tourists are shown a collapsed heap of stones in Wadi Rum that is claimed to have been the residence of T. E. Lawrence in 1917– 1918, when he camped-out there during the Arab Revolt. The fact that the Martian landscapes for the Hollywood sci-fi film “Red Planet” were filmed in Wadi Rum speaks for itself.

Arab summer?

The popular unrest of the Arab Spring never happened in Jordan, and this is not surprising when you are on the spot. There are always dissatisfied people everywhere, regardless of the state order and system of government. The kings of Jordan have managed to maintain balance between different social groups. Under strong immigration pressure, no single ethnicity, class or religion has been allowed to dominate so much as to cause discontent in others. The scarcity of natural resources has forced the country to appreciate its main resource – the people. In his interview for the London Times in November of last year, King Abdullah II stressed that the Arab Spring was certainly a major turning point in the history of the Middle East. “When you look at other countries, you go from Arab spring into Arab summer, which is where I think we are now... The work ahead of us now is to prepare for the 2012 elections.” Abdullah II has previously said that Jordan wants to set an example for the rest of the Arab world, “because there are a lot of people who say that the only democracy you can have in the Middle East is the Muslim Brotherhood”. But indeed, there are other ways. 

Toomas Pallo