Interview: Lina Shbeeb

How do you characterise the significance of the upgrades to the Aqaba Container Terminal (ACT)?

LINA SHBEEB: The Ministry of Transport focuses on developing Jordan as a regional transit corridor to connect the Levantine region with the Gulf and Europe. As the country’s only port city, Aqaba plays an important role. Aqaba’s port falls under the jurisdiction of the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority, which we work with to drive the country’s transport agenda. The upgrades to ACT are a welcome development, considering the waiting period for containers has been longer relative to international standards. The current waiting time is about 10 days, but these upgrades can reduce the waiting period to five days.

Within the ministry, we have a unit in charge of transport and trade facilitation that monitors port traffic to identify causes of delay. Setbacks at the port have knock-on effects throughout the supply chain, delaying truck drivers and a postponing the arrival of goods. We are working with ACT to accelerate the clearance process and are also considering a Customs centre 13 km from the port. ACT’s geographic area is limited and not designed as a storage area, which leads to a time-consuming inspections and Customs clearance processes. The new centre would alleviate pressure from the port and expedite Customs procedures. We hope to get this project operational soon. In the meantime, we are considering linking Aqaba to a dry port in Maan, which would house a Customs unit and reduce overcrowding at ACT. As would be expected, most container traffic is destined for Amman and we have plans for a dry port to service it.

What role do you envision foreign investors to play in regard to Jordan’s railway infrastructure?

SHBEEB: We have a railway plan for a 942 km single track, cargo train network. The estimated cost for the project is approximately JD2bn ($2.8bn), slightly less than $3bn, and we are searching for ways to cut costs to make it more appealing for foreign investors. The railway network will be completed in phases, the first connecting Amman and Aqaba. As this is a standalone link, it would be insulated from regional events. Moreover, this phase can be broken down into two segments: the first from Aqaba to Maan, with a dry port in Maan, and the second from Maan to Amman, with a dry port in Amman. Large infrastructure projects are difficult for the government to finance alone, so we are eager to engage the private sector by promoting the projects as build-operate-transfer agreements.

The second phase would link Amman with Iraq, a project we’re already discussing with our Iraqi counterparts. It is important to secure enough traffic volume to justify the needed investment. Also being considered is connecting Amman to cities on the border of Syria and Saudi Arabia. The region that would link Jordan and Saudi by rail is flat, making it logistically easier to navigate compared to Amman, which is quite mountainous. We believe this link would costs approximately $200m. When the conflict in Syria abates, a passenger railway to Saudi Arabia would have high demand, because of the many Muslims who travel there for religious purposes. Passenger railways must have double tracks, so we keep the project separate from our other railway network plans.

What lessons can be drawn from the success of Amman’s Queen Alia International Airport (QAIA)?

SHBEEB: QAIA exemplifies how the government can successfully partner with the private sector. Based on this experience, we would like more private investment in transport projects. The new Public-Private Partnership Law solidifies the legal framework and guarantees a safe and secure environment for foreign investors. We foresee upgrading Marka Airport with a similar model to QAIA. QAIA’s renovations are a precedent for public-private sector collaboration and should encourage greater investment in the sector.