Amman is Jordan's dominant urban center. Not only is it the country's most populous city, but also its political, economic, and cultural capital. Although it has about 40% of the country's population, it probably is responsible for about 70% of the country's economic activity.
It may be argued that a small country with limited resources such as Jordan cannot afford more than one major urban center, which usually attracts a significant portion of a country's investments and its human talent. Moreover, although Amman is incredibly large within the context of Jordan, there are many larger cities in the world that function perfectly well, and the size of Amman is still acceptable and manageable. However, considering Amman's fast rate of growth, there is no guarantee that it will remain as such.
Still, it is undesirable for one city to occupy such a dominant role in the life of any country, as is prevalent throughout the developing world. The dominant city tends to attract disproportionate levels of economic and cultural resources, thus diverting them from other locations. This negatively influences the quality of life in other parts of the country. Also, the dominant city usually is subjected to excessive demographic and infrastructure pressures as the rural and urban disadvantaged flock to it in search of a better life.
The challenge therefore is to empower other urban centers so they may offer a quality of life comparable to that available in the major city. The best candidates are cities with a pre-existing strong inherent economic base. In Jordan two cities come to mind, and the Jordanian government has been giving them considerable attention: Irbid in the north and Aqaba in the south. Irbid traditionally has been an important trading center that serves the relatively densely populated farming regions of northern Jordan. By establishing two of the country's leading public universities in Irbid beginning in the 1970s, the city has attracted a diverse population that includes university staff, faculty, and students, as well as the various businesses that grow around a university community. Aqaba is Jordan's sole port city and a significant portion of the country's imports and exports needs to go through it. The establishment of Aqaba as a free economic zone in 2000 has aimed at building on its existing economic strength.
Irbid and Aqaba, however, have yet to emerge as cities that compete with Amman as centers of attraction. Although job opportunities - in certain fields at least - are available in both cities, many, especially professionals, still prefer to reside in Amman. Clearly, Aqaba and Irbid need to provide those who decide to relocate in them with housing, commercial services, schools, medical facilities, and governmental services that are comparable to what is available in Amman.
Being able to travel easily, safely, and quickly between these cities and Amman will help bridge gaps between the center and the provinces. Establishing an efficient national railway system would go a long way towards achieving that result. This would be a very expensive undertaking in the short run, but will positively affect the overall economic development of the country in the long run. Developing efficient e-government solutions also is important. Access to a number of governmental services would then rely on Internet connectivity rather than proximity to governmental offices in Amman.
Admittedly, all this is not easy to achieve, and one often is faced with a "catch 22" situation. For example, private providers of services will not establish themselves in a provincial city until there is a critical mass of people and buying power there. At the same time, people will not settle in that city until the necessary services are established in it. Tackling such challenges depends on the concerted efforts of national and local governmental bodies as well as the private sector. In this context, the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority, in addition to encouraging investment opportunities in the city, is offering incentives - including land at discounted rates - for institutions such as schools and hospitals to set up shop in Aqaba. Such efforts are in the right direction, and it will be very interesting to follow up on their results.
April 22, 2004