JABER CROSSING, Jordan – Jordan’s overland trade has largely been paralyzed by recent border attacks from insurgents in neighbouring Syria and Iraq — a spillover of regional turmoil threatening a close Western ally that has thus far succeeded in fending off Islamic militants.
The violence has forced the closure of the only Syria-Jordan trade crossing and further disrupted already sharply diminished cargo shipments between Jordan and Iraq. Thousands of trucks sit idle, traders are scrambling for new transport routes and the government says Jordan’s economy is losing tens of millions of dollars a month.
“Iraq is closed, Syria is closed, only the (route to the) Gulf is left,” said truck driver Firas Zoabi, who has lost most of his business in recent weeks because of blocked or treacherous crossings.
The border disruptions are the latest setback for Jordan since the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 — and particularly since Islamic State militants seized large areas of Syria and Iraq last year. Unemployment and the cost of living are up, driven in part by the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria’s civil war, while tourism, direct foreign investment and trade have dropped.
Jordan’s exports decreased nearly 17 per cent in the first two months of this year, compared to the same period in 2014 — and that was before the most recent troubles.
A month ago, Jordan closed its only working border crossing with Syria after rebels fighting President Bashar Assad captured the Syrian side of the border point from pro-Assad forces. Last weekend, Islamic State militants set off three suicide car bombs on the Iraqi side of the only truck crossing with Jordan, killing four Iraqi troops and causing major disruptions.
The loss of trade routes is hurting Jordan’s farmers and manufacturers. “Both Syria and Iraq are major export markets for Jordan, so definitely the closure of the borders would have an impact on our industry,” Trade Minister Maha Ali said in an interview.
The economic fallout was apparent this week at the Syrian-Jordanian crossing, known to Syrians as Nasib and to Jordanians as Jaber. A free trade zone next to the crossing has been closed amid reports of widespread looting by Syrian rebels.
Until recently, the zone had been a bustling area of warehouses and factories that employed several thousand Jordanians, said Nabil Roman, head of the investors’ association for such zones in Jordan. Since the rebel takeover, investors have pulled out.
Roman said the zone was doing business worth hundreds of millions of dollars. “It’s gone,” he said.
This week, trucks transported goods and raw materials out of the zone as entrepreneurs tried to salvage their inventory.
“There is no future here, it’s finished,” said Iraqi businessman Wathiq al-Abadi, 45, as he oversaw the dismantling of a $10 million soft drink factory he set up in the zone six years ago.
At the time, he had hoped the area would be safer than his violence-wracked homeland. However, fighting in Syria and Iraq badly hurt sales and the rebel takeover accelerated al-Abadi’s plans, hatched before the closure of the crossing, to leave the zone.
Al-Abadi is now shipping his factory to southern Iraq on dozens of flatbed trucks — taking a roundabout route through Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to avoid the treacherous Jordan-Iraq crossing that leads into IS-held areas.
The closure of the zone is also devastating for nearby communities, where widespread unemployment is exacerbated by high concentrations of Syrian refugees.
Ghali Sarhan, 22, from the nearby village of Jaber, used to load cargo at the trade zone and is now thinking of enlisting in the army as his only option. “All of Jaber was living from the free zone,” said Sarhan, sitting with two friends on a hill overlooking his former workplace.
Zoabi, the driver, pulled out of the trade zone with a truck load of canned corn, his first assignment since the closure of the crossing. Seventeen family members depend on him financially, including two in university, said Zoabi, 39, adding that he still needs to pay off his truck loan at $1,000 a month.
Most of the 5,000 trucks that used to drive to Syria and Iraq are now idle, said Mohammed Daoud, head of the Jordanian Truckers’ Union.
Before the Islamic State land grabs last June, about 700 truckers ferried cargo between Jordan and Iraq, Daoud said. That number has steadily dropped with the rising risks along the highway that runs through IS-held areas between the border and central Iraq. Non-Sunni drivers risk being abducted or killed at IS checkpoints.
Others complained of IS “customs.” Trader Mohammed Bustanji said he stopped selling cars to Iraq six months ago because IS militants demanded $2,000 for each imported car passing through their checkpoints.
Earlier this year, the Jordanian government barred Jordanian truckers from entering Iraq because of the growing danger, requiring them instead to load their cargo onto Iraqi trucks at the Trebil border crossing, the Trade Ministry said. Saturday’s suicide attack on the Iraqi side of the border served as a reminder of the continued risk.
Trebil only shut down briefly, but the trade volume was already low because of a 60 per cent drop from last year, said Farhan Mohammed, an Iraqi regional official. The crossing is under the control of government forces, but is surrounded by IS positions.
The troubles have also spread to Lebanon, which relies on the Syrian-Jordanian trade crossing for exports to the Gulf. Exports of produce and manufactured goods have dropped by 50 per cent, Ziad Bikdash of the Lebanese Industries Union told local media.
Jordan’s crossing with Syria will only reopen if the security situation stabilizes, said government spokesman Mohammed Momani. That seems unlikely as long as the rebels, including fighters from the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, are there.
The trade minister, Ali, said the government is looking for alternative routes and new export markets, but noted that trading by sea — from Jordan’s Red Sea port of Aqaba — costs more and would make Jordanian products less competitive.
Jawad Anani, a former economics minister, said there are no quick solutions.
“We have to look for other markets, in East Africa, or in Russia, but we don’t have established routes of trade with those countries. It will take time to build an infrastructure of relations.”
Daraghmeh reported from the West Bank. Associated Press writer Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad contributed to this report.