Jordanian businesses feel the pinch of Syria’s revolution

Since pro-democracy protests in Deraa began in March, business from across the border into Jordan has dropped by more than 80%.

Jordan Syria border 311 (photo credit: Ruth Eglash)
Jordan Syria border 311
(photo credit: Ruth Eglash)
RAMTHA – Ahmed doesn’t smile as he gives us directions to the municipality building in this northern Jordanian town located only a few kilometers from the border with Syria.
“Go straight then take a right, then a left, pass the mosque, then it’s only a little farther on your right,” he says, using hand gestures to explain the directions, his face remaining stern.
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It’s early morning and Ahmed (not his real name) is sitting on the street surrounded by a group of young men. None of the men has much to smile about these days as they wait patiently for the next delivery of cargo from the nearby town of Deraa, four kilometers away on the other side of the Syrian border.
Until four months ago, when massive pro-democracy protests broke out in Deraa, Ahmed and his comrades in Ramtha operated a booming business of buying and selling goods – legal and illegal – from Syria and beyond. Since the unrest in Syria began in March, however, with the regime clamping down hard on protesters and cutting Deraa off from the rest of the country, business from across the border into Jordan has dropped by more than 80 percent.
“Civilians are no longer allowed to cross through,” explains Ahmed. “The drivers [carrying the goods] can still come, but they have to undergo strict security checks at the crossings and they are not allowed to carry mobile phones with them.”
He also points out that with the ongoing unrest in Syria, the local economy there has taken a hit and the cost of goods such as food, cigarettes, clothing and toiletries, that were once much cheaper across the border, are also beginning to rise.
“It’s almost not worth it for them to deliver these items anymore,” he says.
Ahmed is only one of numerous Ramtha residents who are involved in facilitating trade from Syria into Jordan and onwards to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. In the past, on an average day, Syrian drivers would arrive in dozens to sell their wares and all involved would make a comfortable profit.
As the clashes between security personnel and ordinary citizens continues to worsen in Deraa – just this past Friday violent clashes were reported in the town – so the situation for those in Ramtha and other towns along Jordan’s northern border has also become tense.
“Our economy in Ramtha has been severely damaged because of this situation,” explains one of Ahmed’s workmates.
“Our trade is mainly with Deraa, and the problems there are causing problems for us too.”
While the uprising has caused economic hardship for the residents of this town, the majority of people here say they support the calls for freedom and reform by those in Syria. Ahmed and his colleagues explain that the people living in Ramtha, Deraa and the other villages and towns on both sides of this border are intrinsically linked by history and culture, as well as via blood ties with a high level of intermarriage between the Jordanians and the Syrians.
“We are all from the same tribes,” says Ahmed, describing the region known as the Hauran Plains, and explaining that before the 1970s, when a physical border was erected between Jordan and Syria, interaction between the people in this region was very broad. Even with the establishment of official border crossing points, the flow of people between the two areas was still extremely common.
“We are very close,” he says.
As we’re speaking, a driver arrives with cargo from Deraa. Preferring to remain anonymous, he describes a tense mood in his town, with tanks and army personnel now a permanent feature.
“Things will never be the same again,” he declares, adding that people are simply fed up with the situation, and the revolutionaries are now determined more than ever to overthrow the regime.
“We are hopeful for change,” says the driver, gesturing to his Jordanian friends and adding: “Our passports are dark blue, but if they were a few shades darker, they would be black like the Jordanian ones, and then we might be able to get the same rights and freedoms as Jordanians.”
The man says, however, that despite his frequent visits into Jordan, he is not tempted to leave Deraa, because he wants to stay and fight.
Protests in Deraa, which most believe were the impetus behind the pro-freedom movement currently gripping Syria, kicked off on March 18 when residents first demonstrated against the arrest and detention of children who had sprayed pro-democracy graffiti – inspired by the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia – on the walls of their school.
A Human Rights Watch report released last month shows that some of the worst violence by the regime against the Syrian people has taken place in the Deraa Governorate. Victims and witnesses interviewed by HRW have described systematic killings, beatings, torture and even the detention of people seeking medical care.
The report also describes snipers deployed on rooftops who have targeted mostly peaceful protesters. Hundreds of people from the area surrounding Deraa have been killed so far, say residents.