AL GHUWAIFAT // The long queue of lorries snaking towards the border into Saudi Arabia began clearing last night, as Saudi and Emirati authorities worked to ease the long delays in the passage of goods into the kingdom. The backlog had reached 32km long last week, but dropped to 10km when the line started moving in midafternoon yesterday; by 5pm, the snaking line was virtually gone. Although 1,500 lorries were estimated to have passed over the border yesterday, police said another 5,000 were stuck in four parking lots and lined up on the 5km stretch before the Saudi border.
Mohammed Khalifa al Muhairi, the director of the Federal Customs Authority, said he had asked Saudi officials to improve the procedures at the crossing, which is notorious for its long lines. "The lorry backlog that occurred recently was due to a computer-based procedure, but the problem has been solved yesterday," he said after a meeting in Riyadh with the director general of Saudi customs, Saleh al Khalyawi, according to WAM, the state news agency. He added that custom procedures "will be made easier" to avoid lengthy waits.
The resumption of normal traffic into the border zone eased an emerging crisis in which drivers had been stranded for days in the summer heat with dwindling water and food supplies. Hussein Hammoud, a 35-year-old driver from Syria, had been in the queue for six days, his lorry laden with pasta and other foods bound for Qatar from Dubai. He remained stuck between the two borders. "It's a bit better, especially because we're getting food and water from people from the UAE," he said. "But we still don't know how much longer we'll be here. Maybe it might take another two days to get to Saudi Arabia."
Mr al Muhairi said after a meeting in Riyadh yesterday that Saudi customs officials told him the backlog was due to a new computer system at the crossing. "The problem was not caused by the customs authorities," he said by telephone from Riyadh. "But that doesn't mean the Saudi authorities shouldn't have co-ordinated among themselves to prevent this from happening." For the past two weeks, the Saudis had often accepted only 200 to 300 lorries a day, causing the long tailbacks, said Major Saeed al Afari, the deputy director at the Ghuwaifat border.
While the Saudi border's working hours appear to be intermittent, the UAE side is open 24 hours. When the border is functioning normally, some 1,000 lorries from the UAE pass into Saudi Arabia every day, he said. As the lines continued yesterday, drivers transporting perishable goods and express couriers were allowed to go to the front, according to the police. But a small number carrying non-perishable cargo attempted to bypass the long delays, including one Saudi driver who was turned back by police after he drove to the front of the line.
"There are people who are jumping the queue," said Major al Afari. "Maybe they are getting upset or they say they have an emergency. But everyone is the same and they have to be treated that way." The UAE Red Crescent Authority (RCA) continued to move up and down the queues, distributing food and responding to other needs, such as diesel shortages. Police officers also escorted RCA members inside the holding lots, where hundreds of long-haul lorries were lined up in rows, waiting for their turns to cross into Saudi Arabia.
Sultan al Shehi, one of the co-ordinators of the RCA's efforts, said the situation was coming under control. "It is a lot better than it was," he said, "but we are still working to do what we can." Representatives from the RCA handed out food packages from the back of a lorry to dozens of men. Among them was Khaled, from Syria, who has been waiting for two days en route to Qatar from Jebel Ali, hauling concrete across the Arabian Peninsula. "There is usually traffic at this border, but this time it is too bad," he said.
"It is so hot and there are no bathrooms, we just have to take some water and go underneath our lorries. We get some ice if we can to cool ourselves." Mohammed Bilal from Pakistan had also been in the line for two days, transporting building material from Sharjah to Medina. He has been a driver for five years and said the border had been increasingly difficult to cross in the past few months. "Before six months I stayed for six days before I could enter Saudi Arabia," he said.
The procedures on the Saudi side of the border are complicated, and they appear not to have enough staff, he said. The work of the RCA was backed up by other organisations, including the Family Development Foundation. For the past three days, a team has distributed more than 1,500 food and water packages. Yesterday, a bus carrying members, including Wafa al Ali and Majda Tamam from the nearby town of Sila, handed out croissants, water, fruit and juice to the drivers.
"We have been coming to help these poor people because the weather is not OK and we want people to know that here in the UAE we are helping," Mrs al Ali said.
firstname.lastname@example.org * With additional reporting by Mahmoud Habboush