‘Arab spring’ batters Jordan produce exports

Friday 17/04/2015
Truck drivers wait with their vehicles at the closed main Jaber border crossing to Syria

The sudden closure of Jor­dan’s borders with Syria and Iraq and reinforced Israeli security measures at border crossings have hampered the flow of Jordanian produce, leading to a drop of 42% in the country’s fruit and vegetable exports.
The recent developments threat­en significant losses for the vital sector, forcing cash-strapped Jor­dan to hastily look for alternative markets in neighbouring Gulf Arab states.
The past few weeks saw a sud­den closure of Jordan’s eastern and northern borders with Iraq and Syria — the main importers of Jordanian produce — on grounds that militants in those countries, including those affiliated with the Islamic State (ISIS), were nearing the frontiers.
On the west, stringent Israeli search and other bureaucratic pro­cedures caused a backlog at border crossings into Israel and the Pales­tinian territories.
“The closure of the borders with Iraq and Syria and the Israeli delays caused the dwindling exports and brought about losses in this sec­tor,” Zuhair Jweihan, president of Jordan Exporters and Producers Association for Fruit and Vegeta­bles (JEPA) told The Arab Weekly. He declined to give an estimate for the losses.
JEPA figures showed that Jor­dan’s annual production of fruit and vegetables stood at 2.5 mil­lion tons before the so-called “Arab spring”, which erupted in 2011 and toppled four Arab leaders in its first two years. It later plunged some parts of the region into violence and chaos. About 1.2 million tons of produce were exported, with the remainder allocated for local markets, according to JEPA figures. Traditionally, the largest Middle East markets for Jordanian produce include Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey and Syria. Additional merchandise was destined for Turkey and some went onwards to Europe by sea or air.
Jordanian exports include phos­phate, potash, pharmaceuticals, garment, foodstuffs, fruit and veg­etables, mainly eggplant, toma­toes, potatoes, cucumbers, melons and citrus products such as lemons and oranges.
Jweihan, JEPA’s chief, said fol­lowing the 2011 unrest in the re­gion, Jordan’s exports of fruit and vegetables fell from 2.5 million tons to almost 700,000 tons per year.
Saudi Arabia, Jordan’s eastern neighbour and traditional bank­roller, has stepped in to help its long-time Jordanian ally offset its losses. Riyadh reversed a more than two-decade-old ban on im­porting agricultural goods from Jordan on charges that Jordanian produce failed to meet Saudi stand­ards and specifications.
Now, Saudi Arabia imports more Jordanian fruit and vegetables than any other country, representing one-quarter of Jordanian exports of produce since 2014, Agricul­ture Ministry spokesman Nimer Haddadin told The Arab Weekly.
Jordan’s exports of fruit and veg­etables to Eastern Europe and Rus­sia stood at 70,000 tons a year be­fore 2011 but they declined sharply over the past four years to 1,000 tons in 2014, Jweihan said.
Jordan’s exports of fruit and vegetables to Syria also fell from 250,000 tons a year before 2011 to less than 70,000 tons in 2014, Jweihan maintained. Exports were completely halted April 1st when Jordan closed its border with Syria as militants looted a Syrian duty-free shop and took over parts of the outpost on the Jordanian border.
Even exports to Iraq, which was usually allocated 250,000 tons a year, dropped to almost 70,000 tons in 2014, Jweihan said. He said exports were halted early in 2015 because ISIS militants controlled areas in western Iraq leading to the Jordanian border.
Exporters resorted to shipping their produce on vessels and by air, which is more costly and ineffec­tive, said Jweihan.
“The closure of the borders will also lead to a decline in exports to Lebanon, which used to annually import some 70,000 tons of fruit and vegetables from the kingdom,” he added.
Experts agree that if the border crises continue, the sector will likely see a further decline and drag related support sectors down with it. For example, the trucking sec­tor has lost more than $280 million since 2011, Jordan Truck Owners Association President Mohammad Dawood said. Some 3,000 trucks of Jordan’s 17,000 trucks are used to transport cargo to Syria, and, via Syria, into Turkey, Eastern Europe, Russia and other countries. With the unrest in Syria, those trucks are not utilised anymore, Dawood told The Arab Weekly.
“The trucking sector is devas­tated,” Dawood said. “It has never witnessed a negative impact like this before and many truckers may not survive this hardship.”