Sight of guns provides relief at Jordan’s World Economic Forum gathering

The sight of an Uzi automatic pistol is rarely regarded as a reassuring thing, but in Jordan last week there was almost an audible sigh of relief from my fellow passengers when a Jordanian soldier boarded the bus with one of those sinister-looking guns strapped to his thigh. We were in safe hands.

I’d last visited Jordan two years before, and had been impressed by the visible security presence on the one-hour trip from Amman’s Queen Alia International Airport to the World Economic Forum gathering in the Dead Sea Resort. We had travelled almost in military convoy, with army cars and armed soldiers at the front and rear of three or four coaches carrying delegates to the forum.

Last week, with events escalating in nearby Iraq and Syria, you might have expected even bigger security precautions, but the Jordanian authorities had obviously decided on a policy of discretion.

After all, what would ISIL want from a busload of business leaders, academics and journalists? Best not to dwell too long on the possible answers to that question.

So we rattled along through the rolling Jordanian hills in a nondescript old bus with only the driver as local reassurance. We even had a casual stop for petrol with not a few anxious looks at the other Toyota pickups, the region’s war chariot, filling up alongside.

But as we sighted the Dead Sea all glistening in the late afternoon sun, security became more obvious. The same pickups, but this time obviously government vehicles as they had huge guns mounted in the back manned by commando-style soldiers in black boiler suits. Again, it was strangely reassuring to be close to a weapon that looked as though it could bring down a plane.

Through several security cordons, metal detector searches and physical body frisks, and you were in a different world.

Last time I’d stayed at the Crowne Plaza, a distance away from the main conference hall and the main trio of hotels – Kempinski, Marriott and Movenpick – that service the WEF gatherings. It had been fine, but the main resorts are a cut above.

To a Dubai eye, it was all quite familiar. Hotel complexes built in the faux-Arab style the UAE knows all too well, with lots of meandering souq-type pathways and crenellated battlements.

Somebody joked that the builders must have moved on to Madinat Jumeirah when they finished at the Dead Sea, but as the Dubai firm Emaar was a major player in the Jordanian development, maybe there was an element of truth.

The WEF, of course, is back-to-back meetings, sessions and plenaries, and even the free time is taken up by that mysterious thing called “networking”.

In Jordan, this consisted of hanging around the main hall of the King Hussein bin Talal conference centre and trying to spot Emirati worthies to interview.

It’s surprising how difficult this can be, despite many of them being in attendance. Emiratis often “dress down” at these events, and can be hard to recognise when you’re used to seeing them in dishdasha. One (I won’t say who) looked disconcertingly like the Breaking Bad character Walter White, all shaved head and goatee beard, but I eventually placed him and we had a chat.

“Have you had a swim in the Dead Sea yet?” he asked. “No, too busy,” I replied truthfully.

“I went yesterday evening, and it was beautiful. Except for the two soldiers in a patrol boat with machine guns,” he said.

I found that all the more comforting.

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