x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Snarl-up at border puts cargo firms in jeopardy

Overheads climb for lorries caught in 30km queue as owners look on helplessly and angry customers threaten to switch to sea freight.

Abdul Gaffar is a worried man. The transport manager for Inter-Gulf Land Transport has more than 130 of his lorries, with valuable perishable cargoes, stranded on the border with Saudi Arabia. Stuck for days in the sweltering heat, they are carrying thousands of kilograms of refrigerated ice cream, seafood, juice and chocolate.

Mr Gaffar is just one of many hauliers counting their losses as processing delays on the Saudi side left thousands of lorries at a standstill. A 32km queue was snaking back yesterday from the Al Ghuwaifat checkpoint that the trucks have to pass before entering the 5km of "no man's land" between the UAE and Saudi border posts. "All our materials are sensitive cargo like foodstuffs and some frozen cargo - fish and shrimps, ice cream - food that can be spoilt in this 45 degrees," Mr Gaffar said.

The logjam is being blamed on a new fingerprint identification system rolled out this month by Saudi authorities. Customs officials are also reported to be taking their time checking shipments. Meanwhile, both the hauliers and their customers are losing patience. "They're complaining and asking us, 'where is our cargo?'" said Mr Gaffar. "We are requesting them to see the border position, but we are helpless."

With consignments for Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain or Kuwait, he said his drivers typically took two or three days of travelling and formalities to reach the Saudi border from Sharjah. "But it is five days till now and they've still not entered the Saudi border," he said. "We're not sure how many more days it will take." With some goods having to be kept at below 20°C, Mr Gaffar said, the refrigerators were being overworked, which meant maintenance was yet another cost to think about. He worried that a compressor might blow.

He added: "There are many things we are losing. The first thing we are losing is the product, then we will be losing our client." Still, he said, he was dispatching 20 to 25 lorries a day to keep deliveries moving. Asked to estimate how much he stood to lose financially, Mr Gaffar said his drivers could normally make two and a half trips to Jeddah, for example, in the time it was now taking to complete one.

"So losing one trip will cost me almost Dh5,500 (US$1,500)," he said. "If I'm losing 200 trips, I'd be losing maybe almost Dh1.1 million just in a month, plus all the overheads, the salaries, the excess running of the machine and the maintenance and repair costs." Even companies transporting non-perishable goods are feeling the pressure. David Collaco, the operations manager for Heanor Haulage in Jebel Ali, said he was tracking the progress of one lorry carrying an industrial ice-maker to Riyadh and predicted the vehicle would return in 15 days.

At last check yesterday afternoon, he said, the driver was still waiting to get his fingerprints uploaded at the Saudi border. "Usually he should be back by now after offloading." Essam Daniel, the owner of Orient Lines in Dubai, transports lubricants, aluminium and raw materials for chemical products. He said his clients in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria preferred road transport to sea, primarily because of speed.

"They keep asking about my shipment, why didn't it reach until now? Since morning, I'm receiving calls from my customers." He added: "Maybe I'm not losing money, but I'm losing the customer. He is very annoyed. He wants the material, and if we continue like this, he will transfer by sea, so I will lose the business." Mr Daniel said the Saudi border post was too short-staffed to deal with the volume of lorries waiting. Brig Gen Mansour al Turki, the Saudi interior ministry's official spokesman, also blamed Saudi customs authorities for contributing to the delays.

However, it emerged on Friday that Saudi border officials were taking more time both to search lorries and to upload drivers' fingerprints into a new centralised customs system linked to the country's immigration and passport department. UAE and GCC officials said it was hard to blame only the Saudi customs for the delays while other agencies were also involved, such as immigration authorities. Mohammed Khalifa al Muhairi, director of the Federal Customs Authority, is due to meet Saudi customs officials tomorrow in Riyadh. He will ask for an official explanation of the border problem.

Muhammad al Haif, director of Customs Union Department at the GCC secretariat in Riyadh, had said on Friday he expected an explanation from the Saudi government by yesterday. However, he said that when he had contacted the Saudi customs authority, there was still no official explanation and "the situation is still the same on the border". mkwong@thenational.ae mhabboush@thenational.ae