Flourishing Haifa-Jordan Trucking Route Bypasses Syrian Fighting

HAIFA (Reuters) -

Three years after the Syrian civil war plunged that country into chaos, Israel is reaping an unlikely and unsought economic benefit.

The number of trucks crossing between Israel and Jordan has jumped some 300 percent since 2011, to 10,589 trucks a year, according to the Israel Airports Authority. In particular, exports from Turkey — food, steel, machinery and medicine — have begun to flow through Israel and across the Sheikh Hussein Bridge to Jordan and a few Arab neighbors. Turkey’s Directorate General of Merchant Marine, part of that country’s transport ministry, said transit containers shipped to Israel for passage on to other lands rose to 77,337 tons in 2013 from 17,882 tons in 2010.

The trade, though still small, is growing enough to encourage long-held Israeli hopes that Israel can become a commercial gateway to the Arab world. Israel plans to invest at least 6 billion shekels ($1.7 billion) in infrastructure over the next six years to improve the trade route.

“Israel is returning to its historic role, as a transit country, as a bridge between continents, where historic trade routes passed through,” said Yael Ravia-Zadok, head of the Middle Eastern Economic Affairs Bureau in Israel’s Foreign Ministry.

The logic is simple: Goods from Europe and elsewhere destined for the wider Middle East are usually unloaded in Egypt before they make the several-hour drive to a Red Sea port, where they are loaded onto new vessels and shipped to their final destination. The routes from Haifa in Israel to Jordan, Iraq and even Saudi Arabia — used by the Ottoman and British empires up until Israel’s founding — are potentially much quicker and cheaper, shaving days, if not more, off a trip between Turkey and Baghdad, for instance.

But opening up routes will not be easy. Politics and years of enmity are difficult to overcome.

“A lot of secrecy still surrounds the topic and it is probably premature to speak of a blossoming and fast-growing trade route,” said Coline Schep, Middle East analyst with consultancy Control Risks.

Seven factories are running on the Jordanian side of the zone, an increase from just four factories at the start of this year, the park’s Jordanian general manager Qasem al-Tbaishi said. The planned industrial park will bring a boost to Jordanians nearby who depend on farming and are poorer than Israelis across the river.

Israel has given approval and budgeted 60 million shekels ($17 million) to build a bridge directly into the trade zone. The gateway group hopes Jordan will approve the plan within months.