Environment and development
in coastal regions and in small islands
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Fishing for Sustainable Living in Aqaba, Red Sea, Jordan: pre-project report

By Dr. Mikhail Shilin
Russian State Hydro-meteorological University
98, Malookhtinsky av.
St. Petersburg, Russian Federation



Figure 1. Satellite image of the Aqaba

The Aqaba Region (Fig.1) is a delicate area of strategic importance to the development of the whole country of Jordan. Here old traditions are mixed with new, intensive developments. The general situation in the Aqaba Region, and the background of the proposed Project may be described as a coastalization, which means the diversification of coastal activities. This rapid coastalization of the Aqaba Region is creating problems for traditional users of natural resources, such as fishermen, and is increasing anthropogenic pressure on the coastal environment. The socio-economic and environmental situation in the Region should be studied, and managed on an interdisciplinary basis. Principles of complex monitoring must be developed, and proposals for sustainable development strategies should be formulated based on the approaches developed by the Coastal Regions and Small Islands (CSI) platform of UNESCO.

The pre-pilot initiatives, carried out for the most part by the UNESCO Offices in Amman, Cairo and Doha, and by the Aqaba Marine Science Station (MSS) have demonstrated that several sectors in the pilot area can collaborate successfully. They will be able to integrate different stakeholders within the framework of the Project and should provide a maximal output with limited resources. The pre-pilot activities will provide the basis on which the Pilot Project can be developed. The core idea of the Pilot Project will be the sustainable use of fish resources, which means not only support for the traditional fishery, but also the development of other, complementary activities like aquaculture, glass-boat-tourism etc., with the intent to decrease anthropogenic pressure on the coastal ecosystem.

Crosscutting themes like gender, poverty alleviation and human rights will constitute an integral part of the Project.

Historical context  

The modern name Aqaba comes from the ancient name Aqabat Aila which means “The Pass of Aila” – a reference to the route north of Ma’an city, in the South of Jordan, through the Wadi Yutm gorge. Aqaba’s earliest settlement, recorded as Ayla, dates to 4500- 3200 B.C. It is believed that Ayla was the base for King Solomon’s large merchant fleet: 1 King 9: 26 describes it as being “beside Eloth, on the shore of the Red Sea, in the land of Edom”.  In the third century B.C., the Ptolemies of Egypt renamed Ayla’s port Berenice after their Queen. In the first century B.C., the Nabatean tribes from the Arabian Peninsula inhabited Ayla/Berenice region, raising livestock and raiding merchant ships in the Gulf of Aqaba, including Cleopatra’s and Marc Anthony’s ships that were docked there. In A.D. 106, Ayla/Berenice was incorporated in the Roman Empire, as Ailana, and developed into a lucrative trade center, connected with Petra, Amman and Damascus in the North, and with Alexandria/Egypt in the South through the prosperous trade route the Via Nova Traiana (“Trajan’s New Road”). When, in 331 A.D., the Eastern part of the Roman Empire became independent and formed the Byzantium Empire, several churches were built in the Aqaba/Ailana region. Recent excavations in the town of Aqaba have revealed what is believed to be the oldest purpose-built church in the world, erected around 300 A.D. After the advent of Islam in A.D. 636, Aqaba/Ailana continued to host a bishop, and the title “Bishop of Aqaba” remains to this day in the records of the Roman Catholic Church. Islamic Aqaba was a thriving port, and a cultural medley, benefiting from the annual pilgrimage of Muslim pilgrims from Egypt, Syria, Palestine and Jordan to Mecca and Medina. In 1116 Aqaba was occupied by the Crusaders under the leadership of Baldwin I, who built a fort on an island in the Gulf, later rebuilt and expanded by the Mameluks in the 16th century. When the muslim armies re-conquered the port in 1320, the Abbashid caliphs relocated their capitol from Damascus to Baghdad, and Aqaba’s importance as a trade and cultural center began to wane. The Ottoman Empire ruled Aqaba from the beginning of the 16th century. The port’s reputation as a burgeoning city of trade and transit, which began to deteriorate during the Abbashid Empire, now shrank to a simple fishing village of little significance and was to remain so for 400 years. The Suez Canal became operational in 1869 and “stole” much of Aqaba’s commercial importance and status. During World War I, the Arab Army of Sharif Hussein bin Ali, the Hashemite leader of the Great Arab Revolt, together with T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, attacked Ottoman troops in Aqaba, who withdrew on July 6, 1917.  

Modern situation: establishment and the early activities of the Aqaba Special Economic Zone  

Figure 2. Meeting between the 
UNESCO team and the ASEZ leaders

On 2 January 2001, the Government of Jordan established the Aqaba Special Economic Zone (ASEZ) as a liberalized, low-tax, duty-free and multi-sectoral development area. The ASEZ covers an area of approximately 375 square kilometers, and embodies the Goverment of Jordan’s “Small Country Big Ideas” vision to position Jordan at the forefront of development in the region and to fully integrate the country into the global economy. The objective of the ASEZ is to transform the underdeveloped Aqaba region into an engine of economic growth in Southern Jordan through the introduction of a modern, efficient, simplified business environment with streamlined administrative systems to attract investment and maximize private sector participation. Over the next twenty years, it is anticipated that the ASEZ will attract a total of approximately $ 6.0 billion in investment and create over 70,000 direct employment opportunities, mostly connected with the Port of Aqaba. Investment opportunities in the Zone include high-quality tourism development, industrial estates, technology parks, logistic and warehousing developments and commercial and residential complexes. Its location on the boarder of three countries (Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt) and at the intersection of three continents means that ASEZ offers unique business opportunities and promises to combine environmentally sound use of natural resources with a high-quality lifestyle. The administrators of ASEZ are readily available for discussions and meetings with scientists, experts and people interested in the general situation in the Region (Fig. 2).

Development problems

Figure 3. Fishermen in the Gulf of 

The ASEZ is unique among economic zones around the world in that it encompasses the “living” city of Aqaba with a population of 70,000 people. Not all the population is ready for the social transformations and the rapid change of lifestyle that is anticipated in the ASEZ. One of the traditional and culturally conservative parts of local society is the two hundred fishermen and their families. Fishermen do not play an important role in the present ASEZ activities, but they form its cultural environment. The lifestyle, and the whole mentality of these people are connected with fish (Fig. 3). The possible depletion of fish stocks with increasing anthropogenic pressure will be catastrophic for them, as they have no clear alternative sources of income.

CSI activities in the Region  

In the context of possible Pilot Project development, the results of the pre-pilot initiatives were analyzed. The potential of the Aqaba Marine Science Station was evaluated, as possible leader of the Pilot Project. The socio-ecological and economic situation in the Region was discussed with various stakeholders. The needs of the principal stakeholders, and possible beneficiaries were analyzed.  

During a mission the UNESCO team met the principal stakeholders of the Aqaba region and their activities were analyzed:  

Aqaba Marine Science Station (MSS) – initiator and possible leader of the Pilot Project, with highly educated staff and great experience of scientific and practical work in the coastal zone; ready to be a moderator in dialogs between different stakeholders. MSS is strategically placed to mobilize various stakeholders in the proposed CSI initiative. It is the only organization in Jordan, which carries out monitoring and scientific research in the coastal zone, together with environmental education activities, including a Marine Aquarium. The Director and his staff presented a short summary of the main activities of the MSS. The Director of the MSS emphasized that the proposed Pilot Project targeting the fishermen will be an integral part of the ongoing activities implemented by the MSS. The long term monitoring program for Aqaba’s coast, which was initiated at the MSS, recently incorporated the fishery sector in order to assess its role as a valuable marine resource.  

The Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority (ASEZA) – is responsible for the creation and support of the legislative basis for the sustainable development of the Aqaba Region. Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is an important and integral tool in ASEZA’s operations. One of the main goals of the ASEZA is to ensure a dynamic equilibrium between the needs of local businesses and environmental requirements. A summary of planned and on-going activities in the development of the Aqaba coastline was presented in a special Brochure highlighting the land use plan of the coastal zone.

The Port of Aqaba – serves not only Jordan’s economy, but also some neighboring countries, and acts as a catalyst for the development of the maritime sector in Jordan. Located close to the town of Aqaba, the Main Port Zone comprises 10 berths with a total length of 2,050 meters. These berths are used for handling general cargo, grain, phosphates, and lighter traffic. The port activities are presented as environmentally friendly, and important for the ASEZ development.  

The Royal Jordanian Naval Force (RJNF) – is obliged to protect the safety of fishermen at sea, in addition to protecting the territorial integrity of Jordan.  

The Jordan Royal Ecological Diving Society – (NGO) – is currently the first and only Jordanian non-profit, non-governmental organization dedicated to preserving and protecting the marine environment in the Kingdom. JREDS aims at conservation, rehabilitation, and enhancement of the marine ecosystems in Jordan by increasing public participation in decision-making processes, promoting sustainable management of natural marine resources, lobbying, generating public awareness, and technical capacity-building.  

Figure 4. Re-construction of a fishing
boat as a “glass-boat” for tourists

Figure 5. Meeting with local fishermen

Figure 6. Fish in the Gulf of Aqaba

Figure 7. Coral reef in the coastal zone
of the Gulf of Aqaba

Figure 8. A new hotel on the coast; a
sign of coastalization

Princess Basma Training Center (NGO) – is the organizer of various activities: family planning; help in modification of old fishing boats (Fig. 4), facilities and equipment; special training for fishermen’s families; organization of “ruller- markets”.  

Aqaba Fishermen’s Association, and the Association of the Glass-boat-operators – start to play an essential role in the social and economic life of the local community as initiators of the “bottom-up” initiatives. At a Workshop, an emotional discussion took place about the problems of the traditional fishermen: huge families to support; decrease of available fish resources; lack of governmental support; absence of business infrastructure and supporting facilities like refrigerators and storage; absence of policy or price control for local fish markets; shrinking of available coastline because of hotel/tourism development; absence of mechanisms to involve fishermen in the decision making process regarding the ASEZ development (Fig. 5).

Four aspects of the coastalization process were revealed as most important to the future studies, as keystones for the basis of the sustainable development:  

  1. Fish as a natural resource, and as a biological component of the coastal ecosystems (Fig. 6);

  2. Fishermen as nature-users, and traditional inhabitants of the coastal zone;

  3. Coastal environment (Fig. 7);

  4. Legislative basis for coastal activities (licensing, market regulations etc.), and conflict resolution (for example, between coastal tourism, protected areas, and coastal fishery) (Fig. 8).  

On the basis of a participatory approach, the pre-project activities created a unique opportunity for fishermen to discuss their problems freely with Government authorities and other stakeholders. Collaboration of various professionals was established in this initiative, including social scientists; marine scientists; school teachers; social workers; students; government administrators; economists etc. – all of them were mobilized by the pre-project initiatives.

Pre-project research was carried out at a very high scientific level and produced valuable practical results and recommendations. The results imply that coastal development will continue and that rather than trying to halt it a framework for sustainable development should be devised.

Positive pre-project ideas were formulated. A legislative basis and a system of licensing must be created on the basis of bio-ecological information provided by the MSS. Alternatives to the fishery business should be developed. Sustainable incomes will be generated as sustainable alternative livelihoods are developed. Aquaculture, as psychologically the nearest substitute to fishing, is such an alternative (using inland technology, which is safe for the coastal zone). Support for local small businesses (like the production of souvenirs), by the business community would be valuable. Women might be particularly effective in this role. Provision of specially equipped boats might be a way to alleviate the problems of the Aqaba fishermen so that they can venture further offshore to such areas as Oman. All these ideas need to be backed by scientific support, and a unified methodological approach.              

Cooperation and “bridges” should be established during the Project realization. All the activities were carried out (and should be carried out in the future!) using a collaborative approach, sharing activities and responsibilities between all the important stakeholders, under the leadership of the MSS, and with UNESCO/Amman support. Government established bodies, like the Special Economic Zone Authority (ASEZA), supported, and should continue to support, the Project.

A strategic goal of the Project is to establish a bridge between investors and local fishermen.


Traditional fishing in the Aqaba Region is unique. It is a hereditary business and currently supports 200 fishermen and their families. Fishing is rooted in the social and cultural profile of the region and both represents and reflects local cultural heritage and history, and the present social and economical situation in Aqaba. A system of monitoring and management of fish resources in the Aqaba Region is developing fast and is important for the implementation of sustainable development strategies in the Region based on the CSI platform, and using integrated coastal zone management (ICZM) principles for Jordanian coast. To support these monitoring and management activities in the Jordan ASEZ – Region, it seems reasonable for UNESCO/CSI to backup the MSS initiatives, possibly in the form of the Pilot Project.

An important part of the ICZM–activities should be the development of human resources; with a special goal to find sustainable alternatives and supplements to the traditional fishery. Cooperation between UNESCO, ASEZA, and the MSS should be continued in the framework of this Pilot Project. The Pilot Project would represent a useful model of the ICZM–approach for other areas of Jordan, and to any area in the world where coastalization is escalating (as for example in the St. Petersburg Region, Russia). The target population group, the local fishermen, should be the primary participants, and principal beneficiaries in the proposed Pilot Project.

Because of the uniqueness of the Aqaba Region, the long-term Project on the platform of the UNESCO/CSI appears to be important not only for the Aqaba as ASEZ, but for the sustainable development and capacity building of the entire Kingdom of Jordan.  


  1. The Port of Aqaba (with the foreword by Eng. Saud Soror, Director general).- SPECTRA Advertising, Amman, 2001/2002: p. 35.

  2. Aqaba Special Economic Zone- A strategic choice for your investment.- Business Guide, p. 33.

  3. Mohannad Zibdeh, Maroof Khalaf, Tariq Al- Najjar. Report on Cultural and Socioeconomic Structure of the Fisherman Community and Fishing Industry in the Jordan’s Gulf of Aqaba, Red Sea.

  4. John E. Randall and Maroof Khalaf. Redescription of the Labrid Fish Oxycheilinus orientalis (Gunther), a Senior Synonim of O. rhodochrous (Gunther), and the First Record from the Red Sea.- Zoological Studies, 2003,  42 (1): 135 – 139.

  5. Mohammad Al-Zibdeh, Tariq al-Najjar and Maroof Khalaf. Workshop on the Environmental, cultural and social status of the fishermen in Aqaba / Report.- 15 November 2001.


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