Tourism Trumps Terror in the Gulf of Aqaba, Where Israel and Jordan Vie for Visits from US Warships
By BARBARA OPALL-ROME
EILAT, Israel — Old Glory waves alongside Harrier jump jets on the aft deck of the USS Kearsarge docked just a short distance below my rooftop apartment in the Red Sea port town of Eilat. On the other side of this flagship of the Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group, hosting the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit on an 8-month deployment in the region, the zoom on my Iphone can make out a squadron of MV-22 Ospreys and a few other rotary wing aircraft.
I tried to get a closer look by driving down to the dock, but security guards quickly waved me away. Turns out my rooftop vantage offers one of the best views not only of the first visit of a U.S. warship here in 14 years, but of the dynamics at play in the Gulf of Aqaba between Israel and Jordan, its precarious peace partner of nearly 19 years.
Across these inviting aquamarine waters, Israel and its Hashemite neighbor strive on multiple fronts to shield bilateral relations from the spillover of escalating regional tensions. Here, in the Gulf of Aqaba, tourism and commerce trumps the war on terror as the two nations vie for revenue from merchant vessels, travel agencies and the right to host the U.S. 5th Fleet for rest, relaxation, maintenance and repair services.
Last year, Jordan hosted at least three visits by U.S. Fifth Fleet amphibious ships: the New Orleans in April 2012, and the Gunston Hall and New York in May last year.
The Kearsarge arrived here Tuesday, May 14 to become the first U.S. warship to visit Eilat in 14 years. She left her home base in Norfolk, Va., in mid-March, sailed southbound through the Suez Canal on April 5 and spent most of April in the Gulf of Oman, according to Chris Cavas, my Defense News colleague and guru on US Navy matters.
Thursday, at Eilat’s Coral Beach, just five minutes from our vacation place, I met a group of officers from the ship sipping on Coronas, soaking up the local sun and enjoying some much needed R&R after two months at sea. One had nothing but praise for the liberal, “American-like” atmosphere here in Eilat. Her friend said they’ve been all over the region. Eilat, they said, tops their list of R&R destinations, although Aqaba, Jordan just might rank a close second.
For decades, the first thing sea-faring traffic recognized as they entered the Gulf of Aqaba was the distant lights and bling of Eilat’s booming hotel district, which far overshadowed the Jordan shore’s sparsely-lit Aqaba port on the western shore. Close in, Jordan’s 137-meter-tall flag pole bearing a 20-meter by 40-meter ensign of the Hashemite Kingdom came into view.
But in recent years, Jordan’s port city across the way has developed its own industry of five-star hotels, international-class restaurants and hospitality services that almost rival those of Eilat, at significantly less cost. The oversized ensign with its red triangle and black, green and white stripes is clearly viewed from all points in Eilat, and appears especially beckoning from my rooftop view of the Gulf.
Perhaps that’s why a few months ago, at the initiative of a local, former Israeli Navy officer, the Eilat municipality funded a major art project that transformed a huge hanger down at Israel’s Red Sea Naval Command into a flag to rival its neighbor across the water. After 740 gallons of paint, the Star of David and its two waving stripes beckon sea-faring traffic to come and spend money on the Jewish side of the Gulf.
The Kearsarge is scheduled to leave Eilat May 18 and continue its deployment.
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