Dead Sea riches a missed opportunity for Jordan

Friday 29/05/2015
A tourist covers her body with black mud.

Amman - Jordan’s Dead Sea shore has an abundance of therapeutic mud and minerals, unlike Is­rael’s flinty sea bed. But the kingdom is hardly benefiting from its riches, as annual exports of such products for cosmetics and skin treatments are 20 times less than its Israeli neighbour.
Exports by Jordan’s 15 factories manufacturing Dead Sea products are estimated at $30 million annu­ally, compared with $600 million by about 50 Israeli companies, said Osama Qutaishat, head of Jordan’s Dead Sea Products Manufacturers Association.
“Our exports are equal to those of one Israeli company,” Qutaishat said in an interview with The Arab Weekly.
“This is unbelievable and sad but doesn’t surprise us,” he added, blaming the shortcoming on “gov­ernment negligence of this impor­tant industry”.
The Dead Sea, also called the Salt Sea, is the lowest point on Earth with its surface and shores about 429 metres below sea level. The 50-kilometre stretch is bordered by Jordan to the east and Israel and the Palestinian territories to the west.
The total area of the Dead Sea is 605 sq. kilometres and it is 377 metres deep, making it the world’s largest hypersaline lake.
After signing a peace deal with Israel in 1994, Jordan allowed Is­raeli companies to buy its Dead Sea mud, which is a component of cos­metics such as facial masks, mas­saging creams, skin peeling and treatment. The Israeli side of the Dead Sea is mostly rocky and has insufficient mud.
“This had a disastrous impact on our industry because we lost that advantage over Israeli firms competing in the same industry,” Qutaishat said. “Sometimes, they buy the mud at lower prices than local companies because they pur­chase huge quantities.
“This is an old industry but it seems the authorities are not inter­ested in it and supporting it.”
He called for banning the export of raw mud to Israel, saying that will “rescue many local businesses dealing with it”.
The Jordanian Trade Ministry did not respond to calls seeking comment.
Production of the Dead Sea products started in the mid-1980s in Jordan. The Dead Sea contains more salt than other seas, the rea­son behind its world-renowned buoyancy. Its waters and minerals are well-known for healing some skin diseases.
Jordanian companies in the in­dustry, which employ more than 1,000 people, face aggressive mar­keting campaigns and strong par­ticipation by peer Israeli compa­nies in international exhibitions.
According to Qutaishat, the state allocates about $60,000 annually to support local companies seeking to participate in international ex­hibitions to market their products — hardly enough to cover the travel expenses of one company.
He said Jordanian diplomatic missions abroad do little to pro­mote the industry, unlike the Is­raelis who assist their firms mar­ket their products internationally and invite sightseers to visit the area, known for its warm weather throughout the year.
At a Canadian mall exhibiting Is­raeli Dead Sea products recently, a small tube of facial cream was on sale for $120. A similar product in Jordan sells for $30.
Jamal Dabbas, founder and own­er of a Jordanian factory of Dead Sea cosmetics, said weak mar­keting and a lack of government support have led to the closure of many companies.
“I don’t make any profit but I manage to keep the business run­ning and covering its expenses,” Dabbas said.
Dabbas said mud export consti­tuted the biggest challenge for lo­cal companies. Recently, he lost some clientele, who turned to the cheaper Dead Sea mud sold in Chi­na.
“This is illogical,” he said. “How come China sells Dead Sea mud cheaper than Jordanian compa­nies?”
Mohammed Rifai, a member of the Jordan Chamber of Industry, admitted that the allocated budget to promote the industry is negligi­ble. “For an industry to succeed, there is a need for big marketing campaigns and we are unable to do this,” Rifai said in an interview, cit­ing the country’s cash crunch and other economic challenges.
He said the worst is ahead.
“At the end of this year, income tax exemptions on profits gener­ated from exports will come to an end. This will make the situation worse,” he warned.
Industry representatives said Jordanian companies in the field face other challenges as well, in­cluding the lack of proper local in­dustries manufacturing high-qual­ity tubes, jars and bottles needed for their products.
“If companies want to export and penetrate international markets, they have to import these items for high prices, as the local quality is poor,” Rifai said.
For Rifai, the potential for growth “is huge but we need the support of the government, serious support, not empty promises”.