x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Meeting to pursue border solution

Customs officials to convene in Riyadh as 8,000 lorries remain stranded on the UAE side of the border with Saudi Arabia.

Members of the UAE Red Crescent load bags of food and drinks that will be distributed to the stranded lorry drivers.
Members of the UAE Red Crescent load bags of food and drinks that will be distributed to the stranded lorry drivers.

AL GHUWAIFAT // An estimated 8,000 lorries remained stuck on the UAE side of the border with Saudi Arabia yesterday, as authorities and drivers waited for the outcome of a high-level meeting on the issue to be held in Riyadh today.

Drivers caught in the long queues spoke of the urgent need for a solution that would allow them to cross over into Saudi Arabia and bring about an end to massive tailbacks that at one point stretched over 32km. By last night, the line of lorries had dwindled to about 12km, although most had simply moved a few kilometres to holding areas by the UAE border post. "The problem is worse because it is too hot, 50 degrees, which is a big problem for these men, including some elderly," said Major Saeed al Afari, the deputy director for the UAE side of the border.

"For sure some people got angry, for sure they don't like this, but we're trying to do what we can." He said lorries carrying perishables such as fish, meat, and milk were being allowed to the front of the queue, as were any with chemicals and combustible materials that required refrigeration. The director of the Federal Customs Authority, Mohammed Khalifa al Muhairi, is due to meet his Saudi counterpart in Riyadh on the issue today.

Previously, when everything was functioning well, 1,000 lorries passed into Saudi Arabia from the UAE every day, according to Major al Afari. "The procedures normally are very quick, just to check the truck and driver, which could take 10 minutes," he said. Drivers said there had been long delays before at the Saudi border but in recent weeks it had been worse than ever. UAE officials believe the situation that has developed over the past three weeks is due to more thorough searches and a new fingerprinting regime.

Brig Gen Mansour al Turki, head of media relations at the Saudi Interior Ministry, said there was "nothing new" in terms of the process of lorries entering the kingdom. "It's the same procedure as has been over the past few months," he said, adding that the fingerprinting system "had been in effect for months". He added: "What could be causing the back up is an above-average number of trucks attempting to enter Saudi Arabia."

Gen al Turki said he would inspect customs points this morning to determine the cause of the problem. Some of the lorries in the queue have been loaded with building material and equipment, others with cars, boats or perishable cargo. Even at midday, some men slept underneath their lorries on makeshift beds, or sat with friends out of the sun on fold-out chairs. As the temperature climbed to 50°C yesterday, drivers spoke of the terrible conditions.

Raed Ali, a 30-year-old from Syria, said he had only moved 18km in four days. Mr Ali's was one of thousands of lorries running low on diesel and he was having to cool himself, his vehicle and his cargo, which includes some perishables, with ice. "I have spent most of my money on diesel and ice," he said, looking weary in front of his massive lorry, parked with hundreds of others in a lot on the UAE side of the border.

"It is so bad, but we have received some food from the Red Crescent, which I am thankful for," he said. "But it is getting impossible here." As the temperature increases, so do tempers, with one man pleading with the police to intervene and do something to open the border. "We are not animals, please help us," he said, as the officer explained that they were doing all they can. Najmat Aden Restaurant has been doing a brisk business, said Saleh Salem, a 27-year-old Yemeni who was taking orders from drivers yesterday.

In an effort to ease their burden, the restaurant had even discounted some of its prices, he said. zconstantine@thenational.ae ealghalib@thenational.ae