AL GHUWAIFAT // As the sun beats down on the 8,000 lorries waiting at the UAE's border with Saudi Arabia, frustration among the drivers is simmering. "We're in a prison, that's what it feels like," said Mamoun al Ibrahim, a 25-year-old Syrian lying on a mat in a thin sliver of shade by the side of his cab. "We drivers are not being treated like human beings."
Mr al Ibrahim has driven his payload of laundry powder just 20km since Wednesday because Saudi border officials are taking more time both to search trucks, something they say is necessary to combat smuggling, and to upload drivers' fingerprints into a new centralised customs system linked to the country's immigration and passport department. And yesterday he was no closer to the elusive border. Instead of an open road, lorries stretched as far as the eye could see.
The queues at Al Ghuwaifat began about three weeks ago, according to the owner of a small restaurant near the border, but have become acute during the past week. At the end of the 25km jam leading up to the UAE border crossing, some drivers have not moved for up to 12 hours. And as the days pass with little progress, tempers are fraying. Unable to sleep for more than a couple of hours at a time because they are regularly awakened to advance a few more metres, the drivers must also cope with having nowhere to wash and limited supplies of food and water. In such circumstances, the temptation to try to get past the truck in front is too much for some to resist.
"There are brawls every day," said Harwinder Singh, an Indian driver. "There are regular police patrols to make sure the trucks stay in their lane, but when the cops aren't looking, people try to get past you. The Arabic drivers can get away with it because they can talk to the police, but we who don't speak Arabic get into trouble." Getting enough food is also difficult for many of the thousands of stranded drivers. Although those near the front of the queue have easy access to the small shops and restaurants near the border, those further back have little opportunity to stock up because they face losing their place in the queue if it moves while they are away. They may even be fined by the police, who hand out Dh600 (US$163) penalties to truckers who leave the truck lane or block the queue.
"What I've seen is very unfortunate," said Mohammed Ali, who runs the Sillat al Arab restaurant. "These drivers are not able to leave their vehicles. If the queue moves ahead when they leave, they get a fine from the police. Yesterday I had a driver in my restaurant and he had to leave his food because the saw the police and ran back." One Pakistani driver told The National he had taken to washing in sand because he wanted to preserve what water he had.
Although many of the lorries are transporting machinery, cars and constructions materials like iron rods, others are carrying perishable goods such as fruits, vegetables, eggs and ice cream. The drivers of these trucks must keep their engines running constantly for the refrigerated compartments to operate and must pay for more diesel fuel out of their own pocket. "If the freezer stops, all the fruit will be ruined and so it is costing me money to keep filling the tank up with diesel to keep it going," said Abdul Majid Furqaise, who has a cargo of mangos, oranges and apples in his lorry. It had taken him six days to reach the UAE border point, he said.
"I am paying, but there is no guarantee it will not be rejected at the other end by the buyer because it has taken so long to get there." For many drivers, however, the real uncertainty begins once they have crossed the Emirates border into the 5km strip of "no-man's land" between the UAE and Saudi borders, where there are no shops or restaurants and where drivers are not officially in either country.
It can take another five days for lorries to crawl along this strip and make it to the Saudi crossing. "We are very annoyed but at least here on the UAE side of the border we can figure things out," said Mr al Ibrahim, who said he and his friend Khaled Badeer had canned food and iced water in coolers their cabs. "In there between the borders, there is nothing at all, and we have no idea how long we might have to spend there. There is already an overload of trucks in there."
The National attempted to gain access to drivers stuck between the border crossings, but reporters were not allowed to pass by UAE border officials, who said they too were frustrated at the slow progress on the Saudi side. "We can easily process the trucks, but we can't let them through because it's already full between the borders," said one Emirati official. "Delays like this have happened before but never to this extent. We don't know when it will end and we are not getting much information from the Saudi side."
Waiting in the holding car park to pass into no-man's land are more than 500 lorries. The drivers have been cleared to cross, but have nowhere to go with the queue backed up. Barjanj Singh, who is transporting marble slabs, has been waiting for five days just to reach this point. "I'm trying to save as much food and water as possible," he said. "I have been in this position before and I know there are no facilities of any kind when I get across the UAE border. From my previous experience, it's not pleasant. It usually takes two or three days to get into Saudi."
It does not help that the Saudi border closes at 10pm and does not reopen until 7am. As darkness fell last night, the drivers were settling down, making themselves as comfortable as they could. They gathered in makeshift camps, playing cards, cooking on little gas stoves or trying to catch a few hours' precious sleep. The cab lights are left on to illuminate the barren, open desert around them - a 25km line of lights. If the line moves, they will have to pack up immediately and fire up the idling engines to inch forward.