x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Checkpoint gnarly

Saloon Watching the lorry traffic stand still with the locals at Al Ghuwaifat.

Aid workers pass out food to stranded truck drivers trying to pass through the Saudi UAE border.
Aid workers pass out food to stranded truck drivers trying to pass through the Saudi UAE border.

Watching the lorry traffic stand still with the locals at Al Ghuwaifat. For a two-week period early this month, the Yemeni restaurant Najmat Aden, or Star of Aden, was doing some of the best business it had seen in years. Hundreds of portions of mandi - a meat and rice dish, the restaurant's specialty - were flying out of the kitchen, and dozens of customers crowded the venue from opening till closing time late at night. Yet despite the explosion in demand, said Saleh Salem, one of the restaurant's workers, they lowered their prices.

"We gave discounts," he explained, "because we had to do some humanitarian work." For those two weeks, thousands of lorry drivers were stranded just outside the restaurant's door, waiting to cross the nearby border into Saudi Arabia. The result of new, more stringent Saudi border protocols, the bottleneck at the checkpoint rose to "humanitarian crisis" proportions, according to one local doctor. At one point a week ago, the line of lorries stretched 32 kms along the E-11 highway - the main artery linking the UAE with the rest of the Arabian Peninsula.

Throughout the ordeal, Mr Salem and others in the border community of Al Ghuwaifat had to race to keep up with demand from the marooned, overheated and exhausted drivers. From inside the nearby Symbol of the Trust Supermarket, Ahmed Hassan, one of the shopkeepers, watched as lorry after lorry inched past his window. Business in his store had gone up, he said, but not that significantly. "Many people came, but we did not get that much profit," he said in between transactions from behind the counter on Tuesday. Ashraf, another shopkeeper, said he had never seen traffic so bad at the border. The drivers, some of whom were running low on money, food and fuel, did stock up on the essentials - water, something to eat and cigarettes.

"They were very tired, very hot," Ashraf said. Mr Hassan, 38, from Kerala, has spent six of his 15 years in the UAE at the isolated border, where he lives in a small room just behind the supermarket. He says he much prefers his "calm, quiet life" to living in a city full of "traffic and hassle". But traffic and hassle came to him over the last few weeks as the pileup of drivers bound for Jordan, Syria, Bahrain and as far away as Turkey gathered outside in the searing, 50 degree heat.

Some passed the day sleeping on mattresses underneath their lorries, the searing heat of the tarmac below them and scorching metal above their heads. Others sat on fold-out chairs, playing cards with friends, wet T-shirts wrapped around their heads to keep cool. For a few days, staff from the UAE Red Crescent Authority crowded into the Najmat Aden Restaurant, taking respite from the weather as they ordered food to distribute to the men and sorted other food relief packages.

On the last day of the aid operation, diners enjoying their mandi on floor cushions vied for space with volunteers packing dates and fruits into bags - a gift from a member of the royal family, who had set aside the items from his farm. But it was not just food that the men needed. During the crisis, ice was the among the most valuable commodities. The ice vat outside the Symbol of the Trust Supermarket simply could not keep up with the demand, so police brought in minivans loaded with ice from a factory in the town of Sila, 17 kms away.

Hundreds of men crowded around the five vans that distributed the pieces of frozen relief every day. Then each walked away with a cloudy slab perched on his shoulder. With their vehicles at a standstill, most drivers went without air-conditioning to conserve fuel, so ice was the best means to cool themselves, their vehicles and their cargo while also providing something to drink. A short distance from an ice distribution point on Monday morning, a police 4x4 patrolled the area just past the UAE immigration point as drivers waited for their turn to enter into Saudi territory. Some were hauling building materials, others ferried electrical goods or cars. A couple of them had yachts perched on their trailers, and another - on the verge of entering the Kingdom - had the words "Irish Bacon" emblazoned on each side of its container (not likely a true indication of its contents).

In contrast to the snarled line of commercial and cargo vehicles, private cars had been passing through the border at regular clip. Just as a few of the stranded lorry drivers were approaching the police 4x4 for assistance, a jeep carrying a large family passed by. The car's roof was overloaded with possessions - suitcases, toys, an air-conditioning unit. As they zipped by, the family stared out through their windows, blinking at the motionless sea of lorries.

* Zoi Constantine