Omani town laments crossing closure

Business owners worry that customers will not make the longer trek, while residents regret losing a nearby leisure venue.

The Al Mudeef crossing at the Omani town of Buraimi will be moved to Khatam al Shakla today.
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AL AIN-BURAIMI BORDER // Ayoub Ben Karam sits in his shop at Buraimi's old souk clutching a plastic bag filled with hundreds of keys. "These are for apartments that are now empty because people have had to move to Al Ain," said the Omani businessman, whose family owns apartment buildings in this border town. "We had 500 families staying in our buildings, now we have around 120." With the cost of living comparatively high in Al Ain, in recent years many people working in the oasis city have opted to live just across the UAE-Oman border in Buraimi, making the short journey across the Al Mudeef crossing every day. But, with the heavy metal doors at the main crossing point closing for the final time last night, Mr Ben Karam, 30, says people have already made the move to Al Ain, rather than travel every day through the new Khatam al Shakla border point, some 20km away. The border was closed in an attempt to clamp down on the number of illegal immigrants passing from Oman into the UAE through Buraimi. Previously, people could pass through the Al Mudeef crossing, which although designated for GCC citizens generally allowed residents to pass without stopping and providing identification. From today, only GCC citizens will be able to cross the border at the Al Hili crossing, located at the other end of Buraimi's main street. Expatriates using the new crossing, which will have eight counters, will now have to pay a Dh20 (US$5.45) exit fee and have their passports stamped. Mr Ben Karam is a GCC citizen and therefore entitled to pass through the Al Hili crossing. However, 99 per cent of the customers of his shop in Buraimi are from Al Ain and now face a long journey through the Khatam al Shakla crossing. Suddenly, the shops are no longer local. For that reason, Mr Ben Karam is planning to open a new shop for his agricultural supplies business in Al Ain. Even though he can cross at Al Hili, he says: "It will be difficult for me, too; with the traffic at the border it will take me around 45 minutes to cross. I go to Al Ain around four times every single day and people come to Buraimi because things are cheaper." Residents on both sides of the border say they are not convinced the new rules will stick, believing officials will reverse the decision once they realise its negative impact. Surrounded by the starched rolls of cotton fabric he uses to make dishdashas, Ali Ahmed, a Pakistani tailor whose shop is located on the Omani side of the border, right next to the Al Mudeef crossing, estimates that 80 per cent of his business comes from Al Ain. "It is definitely going to be a big problem for our business and especially in this area. We are worried," he says. "I might have to leave and go back to Pakistan if we don't have any customers." Buraimi residents say they often travel to Al Ain for shopping, entertainment, work and education. "We depend on Al Ain for everything," says Abu Khaled, an Omani man. "We feel very bad that they are closing the Mudeef border." At the Al Ain Mall, which is located a couple of kilometres from the Al Mudeef crossing, shoppers seeking respite from the summer heat are congregating around the temporary ice-rink on the ground floor. Some children are skating, while others sit at the nearby internet cafe and gaming zone. Mohammed Nader, an Al Ain resident who works at the mall, says people from Buraimi flock to the shopping centre, especially on weekends and holidays. "I go to Buraimi to buy cheaper goods such as furniture," he says. "It is not going to be easy when we have to go across the Shakla checkpoint because it is so far away." The international border was drawn between the Al Ain and Buraimi in 1972 and today a fence topped with barbed wire indicates where Omani territory ends and the UAE begins. Badriya al Ameri, 43, an Omani passport holder, says she often crosses at Al Mudeef to visit relatives in Abu Dhabi. "We are all the same family," she says. "There is going to be so much traffic at the Hili crossing and also they can close it at any time ... We don't want these types of borders here, especially as it has been open for so long." The lobby of the Al Salam Hotel on Buraimi's main street bustles with tourists and people in town on visa runs. "Everyone is worried and no one has told us what is going on," says Mohammed al Shubaki, the assistant manager at the Al Salam. "I have gone myself to the border to ask what is happening, but we'll have to wait and see." The border closure means that Mr Shubaki's wife will be forced to quit her teaching job in Al Ain. "Every day she will have to travel to the Khatam al Shakla border, driving for 30 minutes just to reach there and having a new stamp on her passport," he says. "If we do this every day we will have to change our passport because it will be full of stamps. We have the transport to get across the border and we can pay the Dh20, but we can't have the exit and entry stamps every day." Jamal al Safar, the Al Salam's general manager, from Iraq, says he travels to Al Ain an average of six times a day. "This is a very small area and we are lacking many things, like a mall, parks, cinemas and other places to go, especially for our children," he says. "They can just stay at home and do nothing." Mr Safar, like some other Buraimi residents, was issued a special ID card by the UAE Ministry of Interior. This, he argues, should allow him to travel through the Al Hili crossing. However, he is still unclear as to how his children and the hundreds of others who attend school in Al Ain will travel there every morning. "We are in shock and we do not know what we will do," he says. "Now, I am two minutes from Al Ain, but after they [close the border] it will take us one hour to get to schools, the shopping malls and my doctor." However, Brig Naser al Minhali, of the Department of Naturalisation and Residence, has said previously that special arrangements may be made for school buses to cross the border daily. One of Mr Safar's three children, Saif, 10, says: "I have lots of friends in Al Ain. "I like it a lot there because there is so much more to do and it is very beautiful." At a Buraimi car park filled with vehicles bearing UAE and Omani plates, a middle-aged Emirati man, Khalfan, puts his hands around his neck as if to strangle himself. "This is what we will be like when they close the border," says Khalfan, who lives in a village near Al Ain with his family, but has businesses in Buraimi. "This is all the same area and, inshallah, they won't close the border."