8 min read

The other side of the border: Despite fanfare over Naseeb, business owners in northern Jordan await benefits from resumption in trade

Jordanian residents watch the border traffic from a pedestrian bridge […]

12 November 2018

Jordanian residents watch the border traffic from a pedestrian bridge a few hundred meters from the crossing’s entrance. Photo by Madeline Edwards.

JABER A-SERHAN, Jordan: A dozen Jordanian men and teenagers huddle on the steps of a concrete pedestrian bridge one autumn morning, snapping cell phone photos of a sight that, until recently, hasn’t appeared here in years.

Below, at least one hundred private cars, servees shared taxis and commercial trucks—many of them with Daraa and Outer Damascus license plates—are crowded in line in front of the newly reopened Jaber-Naseeb crossing with rural southern Syria just a few hundred meters away.

“Before, not even the birds flew here,” jokes one middle-aged Jordanian man from the adjacent village of Jaber a-Serhan, pointing to his family’s house just one street over. “Now, thank God, wherever we go, there are people.”

Traffic remains at a standstill as the street leading up to the border is crammed to capacity. A handful of travelers have simply surrendered to the traffic jam, abandoning their cars in the line to buy cups of coffee at Abdelnasser Jaradat’s nearby supermarket.

For Jaradat and other shopkeepers reliant on trade along the Damascus International Highway that links the Syrian and Jordanian capitals, this all means improved business for an area that was a ghost town just one month ago, before the flow of travelers and truckers returned for the first time since the border crossing shut in 2015.

Syrian and Jordanian vehicles line up on the Jordanian side of the border to cross Jaber-Naseeb. Photo by Ammar Hamou.

“Life has returned to normal,” Jaradat, a university professor from the nearby Jordanian city of Irbid, tells Syria Direct.

Until recently, Jaradat was spending his days sitting in the back of the shop, picking off trade here and there from the trickle of local customers from Jaber a-Serhan.  

Jaradat was among the northern Jordanian shopkeepers Syria Direct visited in early October, before the Naseeb crossing—as it’s known to Syrians—reopened. The towns and villages that line Jordan’s border with Syria were in the midst of a deep economic slump wrought by years of war, which saw the border officially close and any incoming traffic to the area all but halt.

“Whole villages here lived off that border crossing,” Jaradat told Syria Direct from his then-empty shop back in October.

These days, though, he hardly has time for a seat in between manning the cash register and sipping coffee with travelers passing through from Syria, Jordan and even Saudi Arabia.

His shelves are freshly lined with foreign-made soaps and shortbread cookies. Behind the counter are Lebanese Marlboro cigarettes recently trucked in through Syria via the reopened land route. At 27 Jordanian dinars ($38) per shipment, Jaradat says, they’re cheaper than the Jordanian-produced version and fly off his shelves.

“I keep the store open 24 hours a day now,” Jaradat explains, in between chatting with a Damascene family who are taking a break for coffee and cigarettes after a long drive north from Saudi Arabia.

“While it’s true that the crossing shuts down at 4pm, there are people lined up outside all throughout the night, trying to reserve a spot.”

Ahmad a-Serhan works in the “Bab al-Hara” coffeeshop, named after a wildly popular Syrian soap opera. “We gave it this name for our Syrian brothers,” a-Serhan says. Photo by Madeline Edwards.

These are not the only signs of renewal in this largely rural corner of Jordan, where local businesses have long depended on cross-border trade and highway traffic for customers.

As many as 350 commercial trucks have entered the crossing point daily since its reopening in mid-October, Ali Oweiss, head of customs at the Jordanian side of the facility, told local news site al-Ghad earlier this month.

Meanwhile, some 50,000 travelers have passed through the crossing into Syria, and another 25,000 into Jordan, during the same period, according to Jordanian site Khaberni, citing figures from the head of Jordan’s parliamentary transport committee last week.

Cross-border trade returns ‘for the first time in years’

According to local residents, much of this cross-border traffic is economic—Jordanians taking advantage of relatively cheap Syrian markets to buy goods and then take them home.

“Most of the people going are Jordanians who enter Syria and bring back cigarettes and meat that’s cheaper than it is in Jordan,” says one man perched up on the pedestrian bridge beside Naseeb, watching the passengers queue below.

“This is the first time [in years] that we’re seeing something like this,” says another.

Both men are from Jaber a-Serhan, one of a series of scattered Jordanian border villages with deep familial and commercial ties to southern Syria that predate the 2011 uprisings, ensuing conflict—as well as the Syrian-Jordanian border itself, which is only about a century old.

Before the war, the drive north from Jaber a-Serhan into Syria took no more than five minutes. Cross-border food and cigarette runs were commonplace. And it wasn’t unusual for Jordanians in Amman—some 60 km south of the border—to take weekend shopping trips to Damascus.

The Bab al-Hara coffeeshop sits on the Amman-Damascus International Highway, just a few kilometers south of the Syrian-Jordanian border. Photo by Madeline Edwards.

Jordanian shops along the border were stocked with shelves of Syrian products—some trucked in from as far away as Aleppo, once Syria’s industrial powerhouse. Jordanian exports, meanwhile, were shipped north overland through Syria, and onward to Lebanon, Turkey and even Europe.

But the widespread unrest that broke out across Syria in spring 2011 drove travelers and transport companies away, devastating Jordan’s import and export economy in the process. Within months, the fighting had strangled trade-reliant communities along both sides of the border.

The final blow came in April 2015, when the Jordanian government closed its northern border indefinitely after fighting between the Syrian government and rebel groups saw much of Daraa province—including the Naseeb crossing—fall to the opposition. The fight for Syria’s southern border left sections of Naseeb badly burned and destroyed.

After retaking the entirety of the southwest from rebel and hardline Islamist groups earlier this year, the Syrian government began repairing its side of the border crossing in mid-September, Syrian state news outlet SANA reported at the time. And less than two weeks later, SANA announced that the border would reopen officially on October 10.

Days afterward, the crossing officially reopened its gates for the first time in more than three years, as a trickle of cars—mostly Jordanians—lined up to enter Syria.

The reopening comes as the Syrian government advances a narrative of a country emerging victorious against rebel forces after seven years of war. Last month, Syria’s Minister of Local Administration Hussein Makhlouf hailed the renewal of the crossing for “encouraging” the return of refugees, one of the government’s main rallying cries as it pushes for millions of people displaced by war to return to its fold.

An employee takes a break outside a rest stop on the Amman-Damascus highway. Photo by Madeline Edwards.

‘Business is still slow’

Trade on the Jordanian side, although improved, has been slow to reach the pockets of traders in Jaber a-Serhan.

“The opening has brought new income to the area,” Jaradat admits. “I’ve hired two new employees from Jaber a-Serhan.”

But for now, most of the relatively cheap goods being brought in via the crossing are headed to shops several kilometers west in Ramtha, he and other local traders tell Syria Direct. “That’s where most of the drivers are from,” Jaradat explains.

The only products he stocks from the land route since its reopening are cheap Lebanese cigarettes, trucked in through Syria.

A few dozen kilometers south of the border crossing, just three cars sit parked outside a rest stop where a Jordanian servees driver waits on his Syrian passengers who are headed home to the East Ghouta suburbs of Damascus.

Around 10 vehicles now pass through the shop’s parking lot each day on the way to the border, says its owner, requesting anonymity to protect his identity. It’s a small, though much-needed, uptick since the days of the border closure, when he was paying for losses “out of pocket,” he says.

“Now, at the very least, the highway is back to life.”

Further down the road, there are no cars in the parking lot of a roadside coffee shop. Just one employee sits inside, sipping coffee and watching an American movie on an old TV set. A cushioned seating area attached to the shop remains empty.

“Honestly, business is still slow,” says the shop’s sole employee, Ahmad a-Serhan.

He comes from the neighboring village of Sama a-Serhan, just off the Amman-Damascus highway, where dozens of other rest stops and convenience stores line the rural route. Some days he sees more customers than others—travelers passing through from Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and Syrians making the trip back home.

“But morale-wise, the opening of the border is good for us,” a-Serhan admits.

One month before the border reopened, he says, the store’s owner gave it a new name, displayed out front on a red sign—“Bab al-Hara,” named after a wildly popular Syrian soap opera—a reference to the highway that a-Serhan pins his hopes on for a revival of business.

“We named it that for our Syrian brothers,” he says.  

Naseeb could bring back much-needed business to either side of the border, linking Syrian and Jordanian communities that’ve been impacted by seven years of war in radically different ways. But things are still slow, despite the fanfare.

Back at the crossing, as drivers tussle for space in the queue, one Syrian servees driver is waiting for some sign of business.

After arriving from Syria’s southern city of Daraa the day before, he’s hoping to find Jordanian or Syrian passengers to take back across the border before the afternoon closure. It’s the first time he’s entered Jordan since the border reopened last month, he says.

“I’m old on this route,” the driver tells Syria Direct, leaning against a white taxi with a logo advertising trips between Daraa, Amman and Beirut. “When the border closed, we stopped work. We were sitting around with no work, nothing.”

Today, he figures that the entrance of the border crossing itself, rather than the handful of travel offices now renewing their Syria routes from Amman, could be his best chance at finding business now that he’s on the Jordanian side.

But an hour later, the queue for the border growing, the Syrian driver is still standing outside his empty taxi, waiting for any sign of potential passengers.

This report is the first in a two-part series assessing the economic impact of the reopening of the Jaber-Naseeb border crossing in both Jordan and Syria. Read part two, on the Syrian side of the border, here

Share this article!