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Syrian conflict opens new trade routes

The conflict in Syria is opening new trade routes across the Middle East. More goods are now being transported through northern Israel to Jordan, and from there throughout the Arab world.

The "Aegean Pearl" is carrying another rather special shipment. The big freighter from the Turkish port of Iskenderun docked at Haifa in northern Israel during the night. It has been unloading since the early hours of the morning - some 58 trucks full of Turkish goods destined for the Arab world. One by one, the trucks roll slowly down the massive ramps from the ship.

Haifa port

Haifa is becoming the new gateway to the Middle East

These vehicles used to travel by land through Syria to Jordan, but that route is impassable now. "The crisis in Syria has opened up this new route for us," says Joseph Tarabani of Israeli private transportation firm Tiran Shipping, which organizes the Israeli stage of the journey. "Now the Turkish drivers can still bring their goods from Turkey to Jordan."

The conflict in Syria led Israel to open its roads to the trucks. Their official destination is Jordan, but everyone here knows that the goods will be taken on to Arab countries that have no diplomatic relations with Israel. That is politically awkward, since only Jordan and Egypt have signed peace treaties with Israel so far. But Israeli businessmen hope to take advantage of the new trade routes nevertheless. "Of course this is a commercial enterprise more than anything," says David Behrisch, co-owner of Tiran Shipping. "But it is also important for Israel politically to open this corridor, and so to support the Jordanians and the Turks." Everyone, he says, stands to profit from the arrangement.

Avoiding Syria

Thorough security checks have to be carried out on arrival on Israeli soil. The Turkish drivers take them in their stride. Customs, passport control, security - it all takes time, say the men. Only the boat journey takes some getting used to. Most of the drivers come from a region near the Syrian-Turkish border - and normally it's just a five-day overland journey through Syria to Jordan, says driver Ibrahim Yildez. But the cargo ship only docks at Haifa once a week, and if there are delays the journey takes longer.

Turkish trucks

A convoy of Turkish trucks is an unusual sight in Israel

Israeli transport companies claim that their route is quicker and, more importantly, safer than any alternatives. Going via the Suez Canal would be costly and time-consuming, and the Egyptian Sinai peninsula is not considered safe. The Syrian conflict has affectedneighboring Jordanin particular, and though Jordan has its own port on the Red Sea at Aqaba, up till now a good portion of its import and export trade has gone by land, or via Syria's ports on the Mediterranean.

Haifa - gateway to the Middle East

Haifa's chief selling point is its geographical position. "If you look at it on the map, then it makes economic sense to bring goods from Turkey, or even from northern Europe, through Haifa, and then take them on to Iraq or maybe even Iran," says Zohar Rom, press spokesman for the port. "You don't have to go through the Suez Canal or Egypt to Aqaba."

Rom is also hoping to capitalize on Haifa's history: in the 1930s, the British mandate built up one part of the port as a transport hub for trade with the rest of the Middle East - installing an oil pipeline to Kirkuk in northern Iraq.

Heavy traffic on the Sheikh Hussein bridge

Neue Handelswege in Nahost

The Sheikh Hussein crossing is getting busier and busier

At the moment, still only around 100 trucks travel to and from Jordan through Israel each week. They move eastwards in a secure convoy to the Jordanian-Israeli border, about an hour's journey from Haifa. A column of trucks with foreign plates is an unusual sight on Israeli roads.

More Turkish trucks are waiting at the Sheikh Hussein border crossing in the Jordan valley to pass back into Israel towards Haifa. "Ever since the war in Syria began we are seeing more and more goods coming through this crossing in both directions," says Avi Gordon, who is in charge of the Israeli side of the crossing. "We hope that this route will remain even if the road through Syria is opened again one day." Indeed, a new railway line between Haifa and the Israeli city of Beit She'an in the Jordan River Valley is already being planned.

Some of the drivers have brought fold-out chairs with them. They like to use the security checks to take a well-earned break. Driver Hasan Yildiz has gotten used to the Israelis' fastidious checks. "No, it's not more difficult to go through Israel," he said. "I was one of the first to drive the new route a year ago. Our people just said, they'll search you for a long time in Israel, but they don't take bribes either. We just open everything up and say, 'There you go, have a look anywhere.' " It takes several hours for all the formalities to be completed, then the drivers continue their journey through the turbulent Middle East.

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