From furniture to cosmetics to food, dozens of Palestinian companies are seeking new markets in Jordan. Fifty seven Palestinian companies, including seven from Gaza, were in Amman this week for the first-ever exhibition in Jordan to find local partners and boost investment in the Palestinian territories.
A tent in a large yard in Amman's Sports City became a vibrant, makeshift market. Organizers said 20,000 people visited the exhibit over the three days it was held. George Kusa, the manager of Anoud Educational Toys in East Jerusalem had many visitors, especially among the younger set who came to browse among toys that teach the alphabet and numbers, as well as books and dictionaries.
"People here like Palestinian products," Kusa told The Media Line. "Anything that comes from Palestine is appreciated by Jordanians,"
Kusa said his business was thriving in the 1980s and early 90s but took a nose dive after tightened restrictions by Israel and strong competition from cheaper Chinese-made products. He said the close family ties between Jordanians and Palestinians in the West Bank will give his business a boost.
Jordan is home to the largest number of Palestinian refugees in the world, with more than two million officially registered as refugees. The majority have been naturalized as Jordanian citizens. Palestinians with a Jordanian passport enjoy nearly full rights, apart from working in sensitive security posts.
For the country's native East Bankers, rising numbers of Palestinians threatens to upset a political order that has left them the dominant factor in local politics even if Palestinians have generally led the business sphere. Palestinian companies hope to make use of Jordan's efficient transport network to sell products across the Arab world.
Palestinian businessmen say they came to explore new options as their industries are facing an uncertain future under continued Israeli restrictions. They believe Jordan represents a perfect launching pad for Palestinian products to reach international and regional markets which would help end dependence on Israel.
The West Bank's close proximity to Amman's international airport as well as strong ties between Jordanian businesses and European and Gulf markets will help the initiative to succeed, said Abdul Munim Shareef, spokesperson of the exhibition.
"Our future project is to open a market for Palestinian products across the Arab region. Our products are competitive due to the high quality and good price," Shareef told The Media Line.
Shareef said the oil-rich Gulf states were once a major Palestinian market, but former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's support of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 dealt a heavy blow to Palestinian products sold there, including the famous white limestone imported to build homes.
"We are trying to revive the market of marble and limestone sales in the Gulf region after having lost it in the early 1990s," he said.
The three-day exhibition closed amid high interest from local and regional investors, according to organizers. The businessmen say new markets will help reduce unemployment in the Palestinian territories.
"As Palestinian companies, we are seeking agents and investors from Jordan to sell Palestinian products. This will reduce unemployment. Our ability to market our products outside the Arab region can reduce unemployment rate in the Palestinian market," said organizer Shareef.
The exhibition was held as poverty and joblessness increased in the West Bank in 2012, both hovering at around 20 percent of the population of 2.6 million. The aid-dependent Palestinian economy in the West Bank is facing a deepening financial crisis due to a drop in aid from Western backers and wealthy Gulf states as well as Israeli restrictions on trade.
A brief report by the IMF on the economic situation in May described the Palestinian Authority's fiscal crisis as "very challenging" and said foreign aid to the PA was "far less than needed to finance the deficit" of around $1.3 billion in 2012.
The Palestinian Minister of Trade Jawad Naji said Jordan and other markets are needed to reduce the dependence of Palestinian industries on the Israeli market.
"Unfortunately, the Palestinian economy has been linked to the Israeli economy by force, while the Palestinian people are trying to disentangle this connection," Naji was quoted as saying by Jordan's official news agency, Petra.
The trade exchange between the Palestinian territories and Israel was $3.5 billion a year last year, compared to just $100 million with Jordan. Naji said Palestinian products reach nearly 60 countries but more investment is needed.
The economic crisis in the West Bank and Gaza has deepened - growth is down from a peak of 9 percent in 2010 to 5.4 percent in the first quarter of 2012. The crisis also stems from the division between the Gaza Strip, which is run by the Islamist Hamas, and the West Bank, headed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's dominant Fatah party.
Participants here say economic cooperation between Gaza and the West Bank could help bridge the political gap between the two sides. Several business leaders from Gaza have been making their way to Jordan during the past weeks to iron out agreement of cooperation, said Palestinian officials.
Maher al Taba, the spokesman of the Gaza delegation, said prospects for future cooperation with Jordan are promising after the two sides agreed to boost their trade and allow Palestinian products easy access to the local market. Meanwhile, Jordanian businesses say they also want a reciprocal chance to expand their presence in the Palestinian market.
Hatem al Halawani, the head of Jordan's Chamber of Industry said the governments on both sides must facilitate the flow of goods, unify standards and improve taxation and customs procedures.
Jordan has improved its road network that links its borders with Israel and the Palestinian territories. A major highway that extends from the Jordan River to Amman international airport is about to be completed. A developed network will help encourage trade, but business leaders say officials must also remove all obstacles that impede smooth flow of goods between Palestinian territories and rest of the world.
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