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‘We want things back to how they were’: Business owners in Jordan’s north await uncertain reopening of Syrian border

The border wall demarcating the end of Jordanian territory (right) […]

9 October 2018

The border wall demarcating the end of Jordanian territory (right) and the beginning of the Free Zone that lies along the Syrian-Jordanian border (left). Photo by Waleed a-Noufal.

MAFRAQ, JORDAN: Row after row of abandoned cafés, rest stops and supermarkets flank the Damascus International Highway that runs through the city of Mafraq in northern Jordan towards a closed metal gate that demarcates the beginning of the Syrian border.  

Once a major artery for trade from Jordan to Syria, Turkey and Europe, now only a handful of cars—driven by residents of nearby, cash-strapped border villages—pass along the largely abandoned highway.

Buildings, seemingly long-deserted and neglected, hint at what the highway looked like a decade ago. “Welcome, travelers,” reads one sign painted onto the side of an empty restaurant, aptly named Rest Stop Idlib.

But in one dusty parking lot just 400 meters from the shuttered Jaber-Naseeb border crossing, Abdelnasser Jaradat and his four sons are stocking shelves inside their family-owned supermarket that opened just a week ago.

“This street used to be lined day and night with cars heading to and from Syria,” Jaradat, a native of the nearby Jordanian city of Irbid and a professor at a local university, tells Syria Direct.

“If you come out here nowadays, it looks like a ghost town.”

“Rest Stop Idlib: For all travelers’ needs.” Photo by Waleed a-Noufal.

Jaradat’s supermarket—the only business open for kilometers along the barren highway, and the last one before the border—is stocked with neat, tall shelves of canned food and brand name, foreign cleaning products. But he’s had only a handful of customers so far, making him little more than 50 Jordanian dinars ($70) in his opening week.

Yet Jaradat hopes that he’ll be one of the first entrepreneurs to profit from the possible reopening of the Naseeb crossing—or the Jaber crossing, as it’s known in Jordan—after a series of encouraging statements released by the Jordanian government in recent weeks.   

Last month, Jordanian and Syrian authorities reportedly agreed to reopen the Naseeb crossing on October 10. But there have been deadlines before, and both sides have cancelled the border’s reopening roughly a half dozen times in the past several months with little clarification.

“They’ll say one day, then turn around and say another,” says Jaradat, “but there’s families here living off nothing.”

“People here are impoverished—whole villages here lived off that border crossing,” he says, gesturing to Naseeb’s locked gates, clearly visible from his storefront.

Although stone barricades and imposing steel gates shutter the road to Syria for now, speculation is growing that the border may soon reopen for the first time in three years after Syrian government forces captured their side of the crossing from rebel fighters in July.

“People here are impoverished—whole villages here lived off that border crossing,” says  Abdelnasser Jaradat, who opened a small supermarket beside the Syrian border one week ago in anticipation of Naseeb reopening. Photo by Waleed a-Noufal.

Business owners across Jordan’s north are optimistic—albeit cautiously—that the international traffic that once stimulated the region’s economy will soon return to the towns and villages that dot the border zone. Several Jordanian entrepreneurs tell Syria Direct they are restocking their inventories and reconnecting with old business partners back in Syria to prepare for the border’s reopening and the resumption of trade.

‘Surviving on God’s mercy’

The border dividing the Houran plains—a section of fertile flatland that stretches from Irbid in Jordan’s north to the outskirts of Damascus—is only about a century old, and residents of northern Jordan and their Syrian neighbors remain closely linked. Familial links stretch across the border, joined by common traditions and a shared dialect of Arabic.

But the widespread unrest that broke out across Syria in spring 2011 drove a wedge between border communities in both countries and devastated Jordan’s import and export economy. Within months, the fighting 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 the area—including the Naseeb crossing—fall to the opposition. The fight for Syria’s southern border left sections of Naseeb badly burned and destroyed.

Many business owners across northern Jordan—reliant on Syrian imports and passing travelers—laid off their workers or closed their doors entirely. The result is a region on life support, with rising prices and crippling unemployment pushing increasingly large sections of the population well below the poverty line.

And yet for local business owners like Jaradat, there is now room for cautious optimism. A string of crucial victories by the Syrian army and its allies this past summer saw the government reclaim control of Syria’s southern Daraa province. The offensive concluded in mid-July when a combination of military force and a patchwork of reconciliation agreements drove rebels from the entirety of the Syrian-Jordanian border area—including the Naseeb crossing.

A road sign on the International Damascus Highway, that runs through Jordan’s northern Mafraq province, immediately before the Syrian border. Photo by Waleed a-Noufal.

The Syrian government began repairing its side of the border crossing in mid-September, Syrian state news outlet SANA reported at the time. Less than two weeks later, SANA announced that the border would reopen officially on October 10.

Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi told reporters at a press conference in Lebanon on Tuesday that his government hopes to see the border open, but that that could only happen once both sides come to agreement fulfilling “all necessary preparations and steps.”

Safadi and another Jordanian official could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

Still, traders in northern Jordan say they’re ready to celebrate whenever trade to Syria resumes.

“Look, we’ve got fireworks ready,” jokes Nasr al-Makhadmeh, a cleaning products store owner in his fifties from the Jordanian border city of Ramtha.

“Once they open that border, you’ll see us shooting them off in front of the shop.”

Al-Makhadmeh’s store is in the district of Ramtha’s downtown that residents call the “Syrian Market”—a once-famous patchwork of shops and traders dealing in Syrian products. Worn shopfronts hint at the significance the Syrian trade once had here, and old signs promise customers the finest Syrian goods from across the border.

A street in downtown Ramtha’s “Syria Market,” where old storefronts advertise Syrian products. Photo by Waleed a-Noufal.

Things aren’t what they once were. Seven years of fighting in Syria coupled with a crushing economic recession in Jordan’s north decimated al-Makhadmeh’s business in his small shop, nestled on the corner of a cramped intersection in Ramtha’s downtown marketplace.

“These streets used to be filled—you couldn’t walk out there because it was so packed,” al-Makhadmeh tells Syria Direct, pointing outside towards the narrow streets that wind through Ramtha’s downtown market.

“All of Jordan would come to Ramtha for Syrian goods.”

Today, Ramtha and other border cities are buckling under the weight of a decade-long recession exacerbated by a massive influx of Syrian refugees that has seen both the cost of living and unemployment rates multiply in recent years.

Roughly 75,000 people resided in Ramtha in 2010, but after an estimated 1.4 million Syrian refugees began entering Jordan in 2011, the city’s population doubled to over 150,000. Meanwhile, the population of nearby Mafraq—just south of the Naseeb crossing—ballooned from 95,000 to 200,000 by 2015, state-owned outlet The Jordan Times reported that year.

Al-Makhadmeh, who once stocked his shelves almost entirely with Syrian-made products, felt the shock almost from the moment the border was closed.

He estimates that he would import roughly 25,000 to 30,000 JD ($35,000 to $42,000) worth of goods from Daraa, Aleppo and Damascus each month before the war began. In recent years, he’s turned to Chinese products—mostly of lesser quality and heavily taxed by Jordanian customs—in order to stay afloat.

High import fees on Chinese goods in a time of recession has seen al-Makhadmeh’s sales dwindle—from upwards of $5,000 monthly before the war to roughly $400 a month now, he says.

“It’s killed us. We’re surviving on God’s mercy, now.”

And yet al-Makhadmeh hopes a newly opened border could change that. A few times a week, he exchanges WhatsApp messages with one of his former business partners in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. Formerly the largest city in Syria and the country’s industrial powerhouse, Aleppo’s infrastructure is largely in ruins after major fighting destroyed much of the city’s eastern neighborhoods in 2016.

“We’ve bought all of this,” al-Makhadmeh says, flicking through a thread of WhatsApp messages showing tall stacks of laundry detergent and soaps that he says are being stored ready for him in Aleppo.

“[The trader] keeps sending me messages [from Aleppo] asking if we’re ready,” al-Makhadmeh tells Syria Direct. “I’m just waiting.”

From his small store in downtown Ramtha, Nasr al-Makhadmeh flicks through the WhatsApp conversations he’s been having with Syrian traders and former business partners in Aleppo in recent weeks. Photo by Waleed a-Noufal.

‘We want things to go back to how they were’

Across a busy intersection near al-Makhadmeh’s shop in Ramtha’s Syrian Market, bright pink and orange jars of pickled vegetables—or mukhallalat—make Thaer a-Natour’s shop difficult to miss.

For 20 years, his family has operated the imposing shop in Ramtha. Pictures of family elders hang on one wall; shelves filled with jars of high-quality, expensive mukhallalat line the other.

Before the war, a-Natour and his colleagues would import the vast majority of their products from Syria. Small cars loaded with products passed over the border, where a-Natour and hundreds of other local business members would buy mukhallalat, clothes and other goods wholesale from Syrian distributors.

Other times, they would drive to Syria themselves to buy products. “You could cross the border and drive up to Bab al-Hawa [the Syrian-Turkish border crossing]—nobody would bother you,” he remembers.

After violence halted trade almost entirely, a-Natour opened a factory in Ramtha to produce goods locally—a more expensive and time-consuming process. He’s stayed open throughout the recession, but estimates that business is down some 90 percent since the border closed.

“All of us traders are ready for the border to open today,” a-Natour tells Syria Direct. “Tomorrow we’ll buy products from Syria and, by the next morning, we’ll be selling it here.”

Pickled cauliflower, turnips and other mukhallalat on display in Ramtha. Photo by Waleed a-Noufal.

A-Natour says that Syrian traders and businessmen are already reaching out to their former Jordanian partners. Some are trying to sell goods from Aleppo, Damascus and elsewhere to businesses in Ramtha—but buying from Syria with borders closed is too great a risk for Jordanian entrepreneurs, a-Natour tells Syria Direct.

“The [Syrian] factory owner will say, ‘Wire me the money and it’s yours, but I’m not responsible for it once it hits the road’,” a-Natour says. “Safeguarding the goods is a problem.”

“We want things to go back to how they were,” he says.

‘Major lifeline’

According to economist Maen al-Qatamin, a former official in Jordan’s parliament, trade between Syria and Jordan was once a billion-dollar industry before the war began.

“Syria was a major lifeline for Jordanians, especially in the north,” al-Qatamin tells Syria Direct.

Aside from imported Syrian goods in Jordanian markets, Jordan relied on a land route through Syria to send its exports to Turkey and Europe—an industry that made hundreds of millions of dollars each month, al-Qatamin says.

“The agricultural sector alone in Jordan would export 250,000 tons of produce to Europe [via Syria],” al-Qatamin tells Syria Direct. “That’s stopped now. The cost of exporting has become extremely high.”

An abandoned storefront near the Naseeb crossing. Photo by Walid a-Noufal. 

But with talk of borders reopening, al-Qatamin believes Jordan might be able to step into a crucial role in rebuilding Syria once the situation there stabilizes. The country—devastated by a nearly decade-long conflict—will require medicines, building materials and relatively cheap imports easily accessible from Jordan, he says.

“Turkey previously filled that role, but now that border is closed,” al-Qatamin says. “Jordan currently has the best opportunity to export these goods.”

Syria’s border crossings with Iraq and Turkey remain closed, with much of the country’s northern and southern borders outside of government control. And Turkey’s support for rebels present in northwestern Syria has led to a major deterioration in relations between the two countries.

There are Jordanian companies “from across all sectors of the economy preparing themselves” for cross-border trade, al-Qatamin tells Syria Direct.

“These companies are just waiting for security and safety [to return].”

Grocery store owner Jaradat is ready for travelers to cross through Naseeb once more—and he’s optimistic they will soon.

But when he speaks about the border community around him, he does so with a palpable sense of urgency.

Jaradat drove his kids to a restaurant in the village of Sama a-Sarhan, nestled on a hilltop overlooking Syria just one kilometer south of the border, earlier this week. The restaurant no longer sells meat—it spoils before they can sell it, he explains.

“Just five cents makes a difference with people around here,” Jaradat says. “Families here have nothing.”

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