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Last overland route closure chokes off Lebanon exports

By AFP - May 03,2015 - Last updated at May 03,2015

BEIRUT — Lebanon's land exports to Gulf Arab markets have been choked off, leaving millions of dollars in goods stranded after the closure of a vital crossing on the Syrian-Jordanian border last month.

The Nasib border point was the last remaining gateway for Lebanese truck drivers transporting agricultural and industrial products to Iraq and Gulf countries.

After Syrian rebels seized Nasib on April 1, these exports came to an abrupt halt.

"Exports by land have stopped entirely," said Ahmad Alam, whose company exports Lebanese fruit and vegetables to Arab countries.

Goods transported overland made up 35 per cent of all of Lebanon's exports, economic analyst Nassib Ghobril indicated.

According to customs authorities, Lebanese exports to Gulf Cooperation Council states in 2014 amounted to $920 million (821 million euros). Another $256 million was exported to Iraq.

But all those potential exports are now effectively stuck in Lebanon, he remarked.

"The Nasib crossing was the only way for Lebanese products to be exported by land. Since it closed, there are no more land crossings now," Ghobril said.

Before the Syrian crisis erupted in 2011, Lebanese products travelled frequently through Lebanon's neighbour, then on to Iraq to the east or to Jordan and Saudi Arabia in the Gulf to the south.

The agriculture ministry says that agricultural products make up 6 per cent of gross domestic product and 17 per cent of total exports.

Agriculture hit hardest

As Syria's war worsened, its border crossings with Iraq closed, leaving Lebanese truckers with only one option: Nasib.

Omar Al Ali, head of Lebanon's Refrigerated Truckers Syndicate, indicated that about 250 trucks would cross from Lebanon into Syria every day before the conflict.

That number dropped to 120 daily because of growing instability along Syria's major highways, and with Nasib closed, just a few trucks destined for the shrinking Syrian market only leave Lebanon every day.

Although one crossing along the Syria-Iraq border remains open, Ali said it is too dangerous to use.

According to Ghobril, Lebanon's land exports have been affected the most by the Syrian crisis, apart from tourism.

Road closures have hit agricultural exports the hardest, since they rely predominantly on land routes and cannot be easily transported by air or sea.

"Our trucks transported our agricultural and industrial products. This is what carried Lebanon's economy," Ali said, adding that the losses could be in the millions of dollars.

"Now we have 900 refrigerated trucks that are just sitting inside Lebanon," with others stuck in the Gulf, he told AFP.

Alam said he lost at least $1 million in the three weeks after Nasib's closure.

According to the agriculture ministry, the sector employs 20 to 30 per cent of the Lebanese workforce.

Livelihood on hold

Many truckers can now be found discussing their plight at their syndicate's offices in Bar Elias in east Lebanon.

Khaled Araji, 55, is just one of hundreds of Lebanese who used to drive goods through Syria to the Gulf, and whose livelihood has now on hold indefinitely.

"I just spend my time in the house. I've worked in this business for more than 30 years, and if I don't see the [truck's] refrigerator every day, I can't relax. This job is in my blood," Araji said.

According to Ali, truck drivers made $1,500 a month "to provide for their families by generating activity in other sectors. All of this has stopped now”.

To make up for routes through Syria being closed, the Beirut government is looking at exporting these goods by sea.

According to Ghobril, this alternative "requires more time than by land, and it's definitely more expensive, but it's still better than nothing".

But Alam downplayed the effectiveness of maritime transport, saying some green produce would not stay fresh long enough for the journey.

In his warehouse in Bar Elias, young men and girls pack oranges, apples and fresh lettuce, whose prices have dramatically dropped, into crates and boxes for export by air.

As the peak harvest seasons in August and September draw closer, exporters and truckers are hoping for a speedy solution to the problem.

But Agriculture Minister Akram Chehayeb, speaking after a Cabinet meeting on the crisis last week, was not hopeful.

"Unfortunately, we have become an island," he said.

Separately, hundreds of Jordanian importers and exporters lost millions of dollars worth of goods when rebels pillaged the vast free trade zone that straddled the Jordanian-Syrian border, most of it on the Syrian side.

Car importer Mohammed Bustnje says he was among the lucky ones, losing only tens of thousands of dollars when looters sacked his offices and made off with televisions, air conditioning units, even doors and windows.

Bustnje said he had had a premonition there would be trouble at the 700-hectare Jordanian-Syrian Free Zone, and moved all the vehicles he had warehoused there into Jordan.

"Thank God," he said, "because the rest of the importers lost hundreds of cars" in looting after rebels seized the Syrian side of the crossing.

Nabil Romman, chairman of the Jordanian investment commission for the zone which contains not only warehouses but even assembly plants for some goods, said there were more than 1,000 traders doing business there — Syrians, Jordanians, even Iraqis — with a combined inventory of more than $1 billion (917 million euros).

He estimated that $100 million in goods was stolen.

Knock-on effect 

More recently, however, the security situation has become more stable, there are reports that Jordanian traders are now able to get into the zone and are gradually bringing goods out.

Romman said the "Nasib crossing is a vital artery between us and Europe. Seventy per cent of what we eat, of everything we import and export, passed through Syria”.

Goods were brought in and exported by sea from Lebanon, or even travelled overland through Turkey farther north.

Mohammed Daud, president of the Jordanian truckers' union, estimates that the long-term damage from lost trade with not only Syria, but also Iraq, could reach $500 million.

He said around 2,500 trucks crossed the Syrian border daily before the civil war. That number was down to "a couple hundred when the border was closed. Now it is zero”.

Prime Minister Abdullah Nsur said recently week that Jordan was in a "state of siege".

Not only is it effectively cut off from Syria to the north, it has also seen commerce with Iraq severely curtailed because of the conflict between the government and the Daesh group there.

Economist Mazen Al Rashid said "the longer the borders are closed, the more serious the consequences will be for the Jordanian economy".

"The decline in exports could exacerbate the trade deficit, which would force Jordan to borrow more to cover the difference," he added.

Economist Yussef Mansur said the only solution now is to consider trade by sea.

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