No longer deserted

Jordan doesn’t often get into Wallpaper, the leading international magazine on fashion and design. But this is an eye-opener, revealed in the last couple of days – a scheme for super-luxurious, environmentally sound lodges in Jordan’s Wadi Rum desert, designed by US architect Chad Oppenheim [profile] [website] for completion in 2014.

Reading Wallpaper’s brief article, it’s obvious – for what it’s worth – that they’ve never been to Wadi Rum. Unlike similar desert tourism hubs in, say, Oman or the UAE, Wadi Rum has no “five-star camps”. Staying there is a basic affair, either in vast, ramshackle tourist camps sleeping 150 people in army-style two-man canvas tents, pitched in orderly rows a few hundred metres off the road – or with bedouin guides in their own smaller, cosier camps in the deep desert, sporting rudimentary washing facilities and blankets under the stars. There is no “mixing [of] luxury travel with tribal customs”. The former doesn’t exist; the latter are homogenised and packaged for outsider consumption so as to be more or less indiscernible.

For years, since British climbers Di Taylor and Tony Howard introduced low-impact tourism to Wadi Rum after 1984, the bedouin and the Jordanian authorities have tussled over how to develop the area while maintaining its cultural and environmental integrity.

Now, perhaps, this scheme points a new way forward. Have a look at Wallpaper’s slideshow of images. All very striking. Especially this one – your private infinity pool.

It would be easy to decry the whole idea. A pool in the desert?! The global elite landing helicopters in Rum to spend a week being massaged and waited on hand & foot by Egyptian and Filipino lackeys?! Hacking huge chunks out of Rum’s epic mountainscape in order to accommodate “pure concrete forms” and “sheets of glass and water”?!

But I’m not going to decry it. I’m going to welcome it, with reservations. If it is placed discreetly, if it is environmentally sound, if it feeds local and global interest in imaginative, innovative tourism development in Wadi Rum (and Jordan as a whole) – and, above all, if it is managed so that it injects money into impoverished local communities in Jordan, then I’m all for it. If it is another Qasr Al Sarab or Zighy Bay – well, I’m not sure Jordan needs it.

Intriguingly, Wallpaper says the scheme is both “competition-winning” and “in development by a private client”. Since Princess Haya of Jordan married Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, ruler of Dubai, I have heard speculation about investment by the Al-Maktoum in desert tourism in Wadi Rum. Similarly, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, emir of Abu Dhabi, has also been involved in Wadi Rum recently, donating oryx for a wildlife reintroduction programme there.

A scheme for tourist lodges on such a grand scale, employing a global ‘starchitect’, in a desert environment cherished by the bedu, bears the imprint of UAE influence… I wonder who that “private client” is. Anyone?