Aqaba/Amman – In the southern town of Aqaba, the price of gasoline can be cheap. But poor storage of the large amounts smuggled regularly from Saudi Arabia can have a high human cost.
In the backyard of the house of a gasoline vendor, dozens of gallons of gasoline are lined up next to rusted metal tanks filled with flammable fuels. Nearby, several young men sit around a kettle. Sparks fly as they move pieces of charcoal to sustain the fire. Some light their cigarettes from the burning coal; their dangerous proximity to the flammable fuel means that one spark can have disastrous consequences.
The harmful emissions from gasoline tanks also produce negative health effects. One of the young men lies on a decrepit bed, now addicted to the smell of fuel vapors.
Makeshift storage tanks, used for keeping fuel smuggled into Jordan from Saudi Arabia, are known as al-Hafayer, the Arabic term denoting ‘holes in the ground.’ Trading in illegally smuggled gasoline is the main source of income for many poor families. It is possible to buy gasoline from Hafayer owners and fuel smugglers at up to 40 percent less than the market price.
The smugglers of Saudi fuel, and those who sell the hazardous substance out of their homes, are exploiting loopholes in the law and the lack of central government control in the area.
The Directorate of Civil Defense and the Customs Authority are not authorized to prevent home storage of fuels because they do not have the authority to conduct investigations into suspected homes.
So far, appeals by the owners of law-abiding petrol stations have fallen on deaf ears, as the directorates do not have the necessary authority to enforce the law.
Fuel storage tanks without any safety measures
Hafeyra – the singular form of Hafayer – is now the common name for homes that sell smuggled gasoline in the slums of Aqaba such as Shalala, al-Khazzan, al-Alamiya and the Old Town.
To be in this businesses, all is needed is a house with a yard, large enough to accommodate metal tanks , and to have strong ties with ‘sailors’ (local name for smugglers) operating on the Aqaba-Kingdom of Saudi Arabia road.
“This is how we make our living. We would starve without it.,” said Abu Ghassan, the owner of one of those “home-based” petrol station in the Shalala area. “There are no job opportunities, so what are we supposed to do?”
The man – who supports a family of 17 – vowed that the gasoline is “is very clean and very good for car engines.”
“We never received any complaints from the customers. Why would we want to cheat anyway? Saudi gasoline is cheap and I do not have to mix it with other substances.”
When we asked him about whether he had taken any safety measures to protect himself and his family against the risk of exploding fuel tanks, he answered curtly with an air of despair, “I put my faith in God. He is our protector.”
There are an estimated 62 home-based fuel sellers in Aqaba. We visited 15 of them where we found gasoline stored either in 100-liter metal drums, or worn 20 liter plastic gallons.
Fire hazard and respiratory diseases
Two years ago, a car exploded as a home-based fuel seller filled the tank. But locals say there were no casualties.
There are no figures on accidents caused by domestic fuel operators because vendors deal with emergencies on their own, without informing the authorities. The Civil Defence confirms that no fires were reported in the last two years inside Hafayer.
In a questionnaire distributed to a random sample of 100 individuals residing in neighborhoods with such home-based petrol stations, 76 percent said that fires were common in Hafayer. The same percentage also said thatHafayer owners usually cooperated with people to extinguish any fires.
Colonel Farid al-Shara, head of the Department of Public Relations and Preventive Education at the Directorate of Civil Defense, says his agency cannot raid the Hafayer or confiscate stored gasoline, because they are private residences.
He insisted, however, that “the safety of citizens is a top priority, [which we promote] by raising citizens’ awareness and educating them throughout the year on the hazards that they might be exposed to if they store petroleum products inside their homes.”
But 63 percent of respondents to our questionnaire said that, in cases where the fire was too big and could not be controlled, the Civil Defense was informed. Such incidences were reported as ordinary household fires, after the residents hid as much incriminating evidence as possible.
“I feel that one day I will lose one of my children in an explosion caused by the gallons of smuggled gasoline,” says Ms. Safa, who lives very close to a home-based petrol station in the Old Town. She suffers from a bronchial condition, which she believes is the result of inhaling gasoline vapors. “I spend a lot of my time at my sister’s home, which is further down the road from the Hafeyra.”
A medical source at the Princess Haya military hospital in Aqaba, who preferred not to be named, confirmed that that the cause of most hospital cases of shortness of breath and bronchial allergy is the presence of illegal fuel tanks inside homes, especially in the urban slums. But this source was unable to provide us with figures or statistics in this regard.
The cross-border supply line
We stopped our car at the entrance of the Shalala area in Aqaba, near the railroad. Young men and teenagers swiftly gathered around and asked us what kind of gasoline we would prefer, “Green [90 Octane] or red [95 Octane]? How much do you want, Mister?”
We asked for 20 liters of the red [95 Octane]. A young man brought in a metal canister that had been reshaped into a funnel, and a gallon full of gasoline, and filled our tank. The total amount came to 13JD (US$19), compared to 20JD (US$28) if bought legally from a station.
We met with 10 drivers who smuggle gasoline from Saudi Arabia to Jordan. The majority were either Jordanian taxi drivers, or young Saudis from the coastal region of Haqel near the border with Jordan.
To help siphon fuel from the cars coming from Saudi Arabia, 1.5 meter holes in the ground are dug, to house the gallons of transferred fuel.
The nearest Saudi petrol station is located about 1 km from the border with Jordan, and about 30 km from downtown Aqaba. This makes it easy for drivers to fill up their cars with Saudi oil, and then empty them out on the Jordanian side, without great fuel losses, given the short distance involved.
Abu Omar, 40, operates his taxi along the route between Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The father of eight said what he makes is not enough to support his family. Sometimes, days go by before he gets a passenger or two “because most people travel using their own cars.”
Therefore, he had to find another source of income.
“The trip between downtown Aqaba and the town center of Haqel takes up about 10 liters of fuel, max. I sell whatever is left in my fuel tank,” he said.
The border town of Haqel offers limited opportunities for employment, and this is why many youths resort to ‘sailing’ – a euphemism for smuggling – to make a living.
Abu Nasser, a Jordanian driver who operates a cab on the Aqaba-Haqel route, was also compelled to engage in smuggling.
He said, “The price of a ‘tank’ [around 20 liters] of [unleaded 95 Octane] gasoline is 12 Saudi Riyals 2.4JD (US$ 4), which is eight times less than the price in Jordan.”
On average, Jordanian cars can store around six ‘tanks’, or 100 to 120 liters of fuel. But some smugglers are working on expanding fuel tanks at local workshops, to a capacity of more than 200 liters.
Customs do not consider them smugglers…energy minster refuses to call it a widespread practice
According to Abu Salman, the Saudi driver, the customs authorities in his country collect fees from the drivers if their fuel tanks are full. At most, the fee charged is 200SR (US$57). However, the fee has less to do with smuggling, than with subsidies on fuel prices given by the Saudi authorities.
Brigadier General Mohammad Bani Issa, head of the Customs Authority in Aqaba, says those drivers “are not smugglers, because they enter the country legally. There are no laws or instructions in place that prevent them from crossing the border with a full tank.”
He stressed, however, that there are instructions in place forbidding vehicle owners from replacing their tanks with bigger ones. “Whoever is caught doing so is fined 100JD (US$140), and has to sign a pledge to reinstall the original tank. The fuel in his tank is also confiscated.”
The Aqaba Customs Authority has also established a joint technical committee with the Traffic and Permits Department, to inspect fuel tanks in cars that regularly cross the border. It is now permissible to install new tanks if they are marked with a special customs seal, as a means to prevent the installation of larger tanks.
But while the customs authority is responsible for border protection, Issa stressed that it has no mandate to track and prosecute dealers selling fuel in their homes.
A senior security source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, provided us with a list of Saudi cars that entered Jordan through the crossing point in al-Durra repeatedly over the course of one week (October 11-18, 2012). There were 150 vehicles with public transport license plates, while 3,726 vehicles carried private plates.
The number of Jordanian cars making the same journey for that period was 14 private cars and 441 public transport vehicles.
But the head of the Natural Gas Directorate at the Energy Ministry, Marwan Baqaeen, said the ministry did not receive any reports related to organized fuel smuggling operations, and refused to acknowledge that home-based petrol stations were a widespread practice.
He believes the issue does not involve more than a few individual cases of “truck drivers filling their vehicles’ with petrol, and reselling it once they enter Jordanian territory.”
But the head of the Petrol Station Owners Union, Fahd al-Fayez, is now calling on the Customs Authority to crackdown on smugglers, whose business activities are detrimental to legal petrol stations.
Al-Fayez says the problem is that the union has no law enforcement capacity to pursue these individuals. Its role is limited to verifying the compliance by petrol stations to standards and specifications.
“The authorities may take interest in this issue for 15 days at most. But after that, they lose interest,” he lamented.
“The government’s neglect of this practice is tantamount to a crime, and is a form of corruption.”
This investigation was supported by ARIJ, Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism and coached by Saad Hattar and Imad Rawashdeh.
Box: Requirements for establishing a petrol station
Article 3 of the Ministry of Energy’s Organization and Management System No. 26 of 1985 states that granting licenses to new petrol stations is subject to the following requirements:
The width of the road along which the station is to be established shall be no less than 16 meters for a two-way road, and 12 meters for a one-way road. Petrol stations within the jurisdictions of respective townships may be built along streets that are no less than 30 meters wide, and that must be divided using contiguous traffic medians, for those petrol stations that are to be built within the Greater Amman Municipality.
The minimum width of the road along which the plot of land allocated for the construction of the petrol station must be no less than 20 meters, if it falls outside municipal boundaries.
The area of the plot allocated for the construction of the new petrol station must be no less than 1600 square meters within the Greater Amman Municipality or municipal boundaries in various regions. Its length and depth must be no less than 40 meters long, and the plot must have a regular shape.
The area of the plot allocated for the construction of a new petrol station must be no less than 3000 square meters, if it is located outside municipal boundaries. The length of its façade shall be no less than 50 meters if it is located along streets less than 30 meters wide, and no less than 80 meters if it is located along streets 30 meters wide or more, and its depth shall be no less than 40 meters long.
The distance between any new station and another in cities, commercial areas or in industrial areas in all the provinces of the Kingdom with the exception of the Greater Amman Municipality, shall be as follows:
The minimum distance between the location of the new station and the existing station shall be no less than 500 meters, if the location of the new station is on the same side of the street.
The minimum distance between the location of the new station and the existing station shall be no less than 250 meters, if the location of the new station is on the opposite side of the street
The distance between any new station and another in the commercial or industrial areas of the Greater Amman Municipality shall be as follows:
The minimum distance between the location of the new station and the existing station shall be no less than 200 meters, if the location of the new station is on the same side of the street. The minimum distance between the location of the new station and the existing station shall be no less than 100 meters, if the location of the new station is on the opposite side of the street
The distance between a station and an existing one outside municipal boundaries and existing streets shall be as follows:
The minimum distance between the location of the new station and the existing station shall be no less than 2 km, if the location of the new station is on the same side of the street.
The minimum distance between the location of the new station and the existing station shall be no less than 1 km, if the location of the new station is on the opposite side of the street
In light of a particular region’s needs, a petrol station may be built on the opposite side of an existing one if the street is divided by a contiguous traffic median.
The minimum distance between the location of the new station outside of municipal boundaries from intersections and crossroads shall be no less than:
500 meters from bridge onramps and overhead intersections
200 meters from intersections, crossroads, critical turns and bends
Petrol stations may not be built in public squares
The slope of the street along which the petrol station is to be built must be no more than 5 percent.