AMMAN, Jordan — Hamdi Tabaa, 83, a Jordanian business leader who once served as the nation’s trade minister, walked into a meeting called by U.S. Embassy officials in Amman.
It was early March, and Tabaa and his colleagues at the Jordanian Businessmen Association were expecting a friendly visit. Commerce between Jordan and the U.S. was on the rise; Tabaa figured the officials wanted to expand an already existing Free Trade Agreement between the two countries.
Instead, the Americans made a presentation that featured a warning, one they would repeat to Jordan’s Ministry of Industry and Trade, its Chamber of Commerce, and other governmental and private institutions. It focused on the Caesar Syrian Civilian Protection Act, a piece of sanctions legislation that has been kicking around Washington for years without being passed by the Senate. In its current manifestation, it would sanction any foreigner who does business with Syria.
“They told us, ‘Don’t deal with Syria, don’t go to Syria.’ Then they went further and told us we better liquidate our investments there,” said Tabaa, in a phone interview last Friday.
When Tabaa protested, saying he and others had long-standing partnerships, not to mention family in Syria, the American officials seemed unconcerned.
“They just told us, ‘These are our instructions,’” Tabaa said.
Before that meeting, the Caesar act had been approved by the House; it has not yet passed the Senate. Nevertheless, the threat, along with existing sanctions on Syria, has brought about an almost total paralysis of Damascus’ ability to trade. But the fallout has also struck regional U.S. allies like Jordan, whose economy, already floundering after eight years of Syria’s civil war, hinged on business with its northern neighbor. It is a place many here describe as “Jordan’s lung.”
In 2010, Jordan reported $238 million in exports to Syria, according to official data; for the first seven months of this year, exports dipped to a mere $14 million. Transit of Jordanian goods to Turkey and Lebanon, which passed through the Nassib-Jaber border crossing between Jordan and Syria and averaged $84.5 million every month, hasn’t recovered. Jordanian farmers, who dispatched 250,000 tons of produce to Europe annually via Syria’s Latakia and Tartus ports, suffer the time and expense of using Jordan’s Aqaba port on the Red Sea to reach the Suez Canal.
Tabaa and other businessmen couldn’t attend the Damascus International Fair, an annual event the Syrian government uses to tout trade possibilities, after the United States’ defunct embassy in Syria tweeted, “it is unacceptable and inappropriate for businesses, individuals, and chambers of commerce from outside Syria to participate.”
The fair, held since 1954 (it was suspended for six years of the civil war) began last month and closed Sept. 6, had no dedicated Jordanian wing. Jordanians who did attend, according to Tabaa and others, used aliases to register their companies.
The consequences of the March meeting have been felt most strongly in the north Jordanian city of Ramtha, about 11 miles west of the Nassib-Jaber crossing.
When a Syrian rebel fired a mortar in the city of Dara, it sometimes swooped over the border fence and slammed into Ramtha.
Before the civil war, 90% of Ramtha’s trade came from Syria.
Thousands of drivers, known as bahaara, or sailors, would ferry passengers between the two countries, along with trunk-loads of goods they sold on the side. Ramtha had a thoroughfare dubbed “the Syrian market” as well as dozens of wholesale stores that sold nothing but Syrian wares. Families, taking advantage of cheap products and a good exchange rate, did their weekly shopping in Dara before crossing back to Ramtha.
“Produce, goods, everything, even our wives we got from there,” said Khaled Nassar, an unemployed man in his late fifties sitting near a shopfront in Ramtha’s produce market.
The war in neighboring Syria had hit Ramtha hard. A border crossing between the city and Dara was closed and has yet to reopen. A torrent of refugees more than 1 million strong deluged Jordan, many of them crowding Ramtha’s neighborhoods.
So when the Syrian government defeated Dara’s rebels last year and reopened the Nassib-Jaber border crossing with Jordan (it had been closed in 2015 after being overrun by the opposition), Ramtha residents celebrated, and waited for the post-victory bonanza.
Almost a year later, they’re still waiting.
Jordan and Syria keep slapping bans on certain goods, lifting and reapplying injunctions based on what many in Ramtha see as opaque political wrangling. Security procedures have gummed up the once smooth functioning of Nassib-Jaber; a passage that took hours can sometimes take four or five days.
“It’s just not the same as before. We have products, but they’re not from Syria so they’re more expensive, and people have no money,” said Islam, a grocery store owner who gave his first name for reasons of privacy.
“If they let stuff get in from Syria, it would be easier and people would buy more.”
The squeeze had been felt even in Ramtha sweet shops like the one run by Abu Walid Balqi. A cheerful man, Balqi stood in a store where every surface displayed the dried fruits, delicate candies and baklava pastries de rigueur for any celebration in Syria.
“We tried to get a shipment of fruits across the border recently,” said Balqi. “By the time it came out, everything had spoiled. When we opened the truck, I felt I was throwing my money away.”
The frustration has turned violent. Last month, riots broke out in Ramtha after the government imposed regulations it said were meant to curb smuggling but that many there blamed on U.S. pressure.
Jordan, a longtime client state of the U.S., can do little to counter that pressure. It receives a $1.275 billion annual financial aid package from Washington, along with military support. It has also struggled to maintain its status amid the Trump administration’s dalliances with Saudi Arabia and the Emirates.
But the U.S. has provided few alternatives. At the meeting in March, said Ahmad Tabaa, Hamdi’s nephew and a CEO of a trading company in Amman, embassy officials suggested trading with Iraq or Israel. But business with Iraq is plagued by corruption and security problems ; Jordan and Israel have a peace deal, but few Jordanians support normalizing economic ties, and Israel restricts Jordan’s access to Palestinian territories’ markets.
Those with no recourse but to do business in Syria, the U.S. Treasury says, can apply for a license exempting a particular business deal from sanctions. But the procedure is cumbersome.
“So as a Jordanian company, I have to ask the U.S. for permission to work with my traditional trading partner?” Ahmad asked. “It’s a ridiculous situation.”
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The US’ proscriptions come at a time when Jordan can ill-afford further shocks. Its economy registered a scant 2% of growth in 2018, according to the World Bank. T he official unemployment rate stands at 19%. (Unofficial estimates put it at up to 30%.)
That has left businessmen like Hambdi Tabaa with no good options.
“Look, we don’t want to ruin our relationship with the U.S.,” he said, “but not at the expense of the Jordanian economy.”
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